Lyft’s about to change the race for self-driving cars


The urban dream of a shared fleet of self-driving cars summoned by an app is inching closer to a reality. Uber, of course, has already been testing autonomous vehicles in Pennsylvania and Arizona. But on Thursday, its chief competitor, Lyft, revealed more of its road map for how it plans to integrate self-driving cars into its own fleet, and it includes utilizing technology from other automakers.

Lyft executives explained at a press event that the company is starting its own internal self-driving group as well as a new facility focused on autonomous tech located in Palo Alto, California, where they say hundreds of people will work by next year. The company said it is also working on the hardware and software that self-driving cars need to pilot themselves.
“This is an effort that we’re doing with the industry,” Raj Kapoor, Lyft’s chief strategy officer, said at an event that emphasized collaboration with others.


Lyft also described its vision for where its service is eventually headed: A hybrid fleet, in which some Lyft rides are driven by people and others driven by machine. When someone hails a Lyft, under the right circumstances (if both the route and the weather were favorable for a self-driving car, for example) the firm could dispatch an autonomous vehicle. They declined to share any details on the timeline for when this might happen.

The service plans to create an open platform that will allow autonomous cars from partner firms, like GM, Waymo, nuTonomy, and others, to incorporate their own technology and vehicles into the Lyft ecosystem. That partnership-focused approach was reported by The New York Times in June, and a collaboration between Lyft and Waymo (the self-driving car outfit that’s part of Google’s parent company, Alphabet) was first made public in May. Lyft will also start a pilot program with nuTonomy in Boston sometime this year.

Uber is the elephant in the ride-sharing space, and is much bigger than Lyft—Uber does about 10 million rides a day, a company spokesperson said, while Lyft recently announced that they do more than a million daily. And their strategies towards self-driving cars are different, too. Uber has worked on the technology itself to create a proprietary system, while Lyft is working with partners.

“Lyft has been clearly less active than Uber in advancing a clear agenda on autonomy,” says David Keith, an assistant professor of system dynamics at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. And by working with others, he says, Lyft is likely hoping to accelerate that effort. Companies like Waymo and GM that Lyft is partnering with “are already working on various pieces of the puzzle.” Meanwhile, what Lyft brings to the table is the ride-hailing platform itself: the app, the customers, and the knowledge that goes with it.

Ultimately, what Uber and Lyft both likely want is to ensure that in the future, they “have access” to self-driving car technology, says Stephen Zoepf, the executive director of the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford. That’s because it can help the companies lower costs, as a driverless car has no driver to pay. When it comes to self-driving tech, Zoepf speculates that the two companies probably just “care that it happens, and happens quickly.”


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