Ford will begin supplying a fleet of autonomous vehicles to Lyft later this year, with the help of its self-driving vehicle partner, Argo AI.
The project will initially see the hands-free vehicles go into service in Miami, with plans to expand to Austin in 2022. By mid-decade, Ford and Lyft said they will have roughly 1,000 autonomous vehicles in operation across the country.
“This collaboration marks the first time all the pieces of the autonomous vehicle puzzle have come together this way,“ Lyft co-founder and CEO Logan Green said in a statement. “Each company brings the scale, knowledge and capability in their area of expertise that is necessary to make autonomous ride-hailing a business reality.”
Self-driving vehicles could transform ride-sharing
The auto industry is spending tens of billions of dollars on the development of self-driving vehicles. Because of the anticipated cost of the technology it is widely expected that the first large scale application will focus on commercial applications, such as long-distance trucking and last-mile delivery services.
But ride-hailing services are particularly eager to bring autonomous vehicles into production as the technology could allow them to sharply reduce the cost of offering their services.
The ultimate goal is to take human drivers entirely out of the vehicle. General Motors’ own autonomous vehicle, or AV, subsidiary, Cruise LLC, recently won approval from California regulators and is set to begin testing fully driverless vehicles near its San Francisco headquarters this year. But it is unclear when it will take them into commercial service.
For now, the Ford-Lyft project will continue to require a “safety operator” to sit behind the steering wheel, ready to assume control in an emergency.
Argo the key tech link
The vehicles Lyft will rely on autonomous technologies developed by Argo AI. Ford is a primary investor in the Pittsburgh-based technology firm, with other investors including Volkswagen AG. As part of the deal announced Wednesday, Lyft will take a 2.5% stake in the company, Argo widely expected to stage an initial public offering later this year or sometime in 2022.
“Beyond the link that Lyft provides to the customer, we’ll be able to work together to define where an autonomous service will benefit communities the most and ensure we’re deploying the technology safely,” said Bryan Salesky, founder and CEO of Argo.
Ford has already established a support base for the vehicles it will provide Lyft in Miami, Austin and Washington, D.C. Along with Argo, it has been testing AV prototypes in those three cities, as well as in Detroit, Palo Alto, California and Pittsburgh.
Competitors want to get there first
The automaker has been working on autonomous technologies for more than a decade but decided to turn to Argo as its primary AV research center, rather than developing the critical software in-house.
Lyft had its own AV development program going for several years but also decided to close it and rely on outside help due to the high costs and technical challenges. Its key rival, Uber, recently made a similar shift in strategy.
Both Uber and Lyft face serious challenges from new entrants into the segment. Both Cruise and Waymo — the latter a spinoff of Google — are expected to launch nationwide ride-hailing services. But they are focused on taking drivers out of the equation. That could prove a strategic advantage, bringing the cost of a ride down below that of either conventional taxis or even personal vehicle ownership.