I live in Las Vegas, which most people call Sin City. The city itself calls itself The Entertainment Capital of the World, which it probably is, considering just how much high-level entertainment is here, not counting the professional level of entertainment, the kind most cities have.
But, this is also a science fiction city. It’s related to the Entertainment Capital thing.
If you remove the tourist parts of Las Vegas from the equation, we’re a small desert city. We sprawl, but we’re not as populous as most East or West Coast cities. When you live here, you experience a very different city from the one tourists see. This city is actually small enough that you see the same people over and over again.
The tourists are restricted pretty much to the Las Vegas Strip or Downtown. The resorts they stay in are so enclosed that people sometimes never leave their hotel. If they do venture out, they go to a nearby one. If they venture into the city, they go with a destination in mind. They don’t see much of the local city.
This split creates all kinds of strange opportunities. When the pandemic hit, a lot of tourists who arrived had trouble getting any kind of ride-share. A healthy fear of the virus made ride-share drivers quit. Many of them have since received their vaccine and are still going back to work.
But that blip, which happened in a lot of cities, got some folks to thinking about self-driving ride shares. And guess what? One has premiered here, because we’re a great place to test different kinds of usage. The ride-share company, Halo, is debuting the cars in Las Vegas and Phoenix.
The Las Vegas experiment works this way. Driverless cars will show up at a location. The users will get in, and they will drive away. Apparently, polls have shown that riders are hesitant to be in a driverless car. So this means that people won’t be in a driverless car. They’ll be the driver.
The system works like this: a remote driver in a telecenter will drive the car to the destination, and then back-stop the rider on the way. When the car arrives at its final destination, the remote driver in the telecenter will drive the car to the new customer.
This isn’t the only driverless car experiment in Las Vegas right now. Elon Musk’s Boring Company was supposed to use driverless cars in a tunnel underneath the Convention Center. It didn’t work that way. Instead, real life drivers are driving Teslas in the 1.7 miles of tunnel.
Experiments work sometimes, and they don’t work at other times. For most of 2018, we had a driverless shuttle downtown. It seemed like a gimmick. Tourists liked it, but it had problems. And eventually, it stopped and was replaced by a car with a driver.
But cars aren’t the only thing that make this city science fiction. Every time I turn around, there’s something new—some casino is trying to get tourists to show up by showing something new and different. Right now, we have a virtual Van Gogh exhibit. You can walk through his paintings as if they’ve come alive.
I’m sure there’s lots of other things that I haven’t noticed or haven’t had time to figure out.
Then there’s the Consumer Electronics Show, which shows up here every January. I went in 2019, boycotted because it had a political anti-science guest of honor in 2020, and will attend (unless they do something dumb again) in 2022.
Because I’m signed up, I received an email, asking me if I would judge the new inventions for 2022. Considering how very busy my last half of the year is going to be—and the fact that I had to be available for all of October—I said no, with a lot of regrets.
When people think of Las Vegas, they don’t think of this as a town of innovation. They think of it as a party town. But to keep the party rolling, innovation has to happen here.
We get a lot of things first. We are the place for beta testing. If the project can work with tourists and with locals, then it succeeds. If it doesn’t, it quietly shuts down, like that shuttle. And sometimes, it gets modified, like the Teslas under the convention center.
Maybe because this is Sin City, because people believe anything goes here, we’re a place of experimentation.
Or maybe the incongruity of a city in the desert is just weird enough to bring it all on.
After all, we weren’t supposed to exist by 2020. You know what changed? We recycle. The Strip, with all its tourists, leads in water recycling, and only uses 4% of the water that gets brought in from Lake Mead.
Now, we’re looking at energy usage. Solar has become big.
This is a quietly innovative place. Some of the innovations exist to entertain, but most of them are designed to keep this improbable city sustainable.
And, as an sf writer, I find that all very inspiring.