The nation’s second-largest ride-sharing service is getting ready to launch an autonomous vehicle pilot program on the hilly streets of San Francisco.
The project is a partnership between Lyft and Silicon Valley self-driving technology firm Drive.ai, and it marks a growing push by the ride-sharing industry to take human drivers out of the picture. Before being ousted in a management shake-up earlier this year, rival Uber CEO Travis Kalanick predicted that fully driverless vehicles would drop costs to the point it would be cheaper to use a ride-sharing service than actually owning a vehicle.
Uber actually was the first service to launch an autonomous pilot in San Francisco late last year. But it ran into a series of issues and initially refused to apply for the requisite state permit. Uber pulled its autonomous Volvo prototypes out of San Francisco, shifting them to Phoenix. Some have since returned but are not being used in a public pilot program there yet.
(U.S. House passes bill aimed at expanding autonomous, driverless testing. Click Here for more.)
Only a handful of vehicles will be used for the Lyft pilot program, at least initially, noted Drive.ai Co-founder and President Carol Reiley, and they will be run autonomously, rather than in driverless mode. That means a trained “operator” will remain behind the wheel ready to take over in an emergency.
That could reassure skeptics who recall a series of problems encountered during Uber’s brief pilot program. Among other things, its vehicles were spotted running red lights and turning into bicycle lanes.
Lyft, meanwhile, will ask customers to opt into the program and will only dispatch the driverless prototypes to those users who do sign on. The enticement is that rides in the autonomous vehicles will be free.
The first vehicles are expected to be modified Lincoln MKZ and Audi A4 sedans, though other vehicles will be added, thanks to a recent round of funding raised by Drive.ai.
“We really want to understand, what are all the pieces that need to come into place?” Taggart Matthiesen, Lyft’s product chief, said as explanation for the program.
Significantly smaller than rival Uber, Lyft was a relative latecomer into the field of autonomous vehicles, but it recently used new funding to set up its own research program. While it has hired hundreds of its own engineers it is also working with outside ventures, such as Drive.ai, as well as Google spin-off Waymo, autonomous technology firm Nutonomy, Jaguar Land Rover and General Motors – the Detroit maker one of Lyft’s larger investors.
(Uber wants to demonstrate flying taxis by 2020. Click Here for the story.)
Waymo, meanwhile, has launched its own ride-share pilot program in the Phoenix area and will field more than 100 modified Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans.
Jaguar Land Rover, meanwhile, is providing some of its vehicles to Lyft for future autonomous projects.
Ride-sharing industry leaders have predicted a bright future based on fully driverless vehicles, no surprise since drivers make up their single-largest cost. Several recent studies have backed that concept, one by consulting firm reThinkX suggesting that by 2030 driverless, electrified vehicles operated by ride-sharing services will account for the vast majority of miles clocked by U.S. motor vehicle passengers.
(For more on that reThinkX study, Click Here.)
While Uber backed out of its own San Francisco program it is currently running several other pilots, including one in Pittsburgh near its autonomous vehicle research center.
Such pilot programs are now expected to expand once the U.S. Senate approves a measure already cleared by the House to ease nationwide restrictions on testing autonomous and driverless vehicles.