US: Taxi hailing app Lyft is aiming to launch its new self-driving division that will develop its own autonomous ride-hailing technology. For the same the company has just signed a lease for a 50,000-square-feet facility in Palo Alto, where it plans to build out several labs and open testing spaces. The company also expects to hire “hundreds” of people for the new division by the end of next year.
This new facility which Lyft refers as “Level 5”, is going to be that place where it will be developing its new open self-driving platform and a combination of hardware and software system that are still under development. Lyft hopes auto manufacturers will then bring in a fleet of autonomous cars to its ride-hailing network.
The plan is somewhat similar to one that was announced by Uber, which is to test these cars in some of the US cities. As far as the vehicles are concerned, Uber, on the one hand, uses Volvo’s XC90 to test its self-driving tech on the roads, Lyft, on the other hand can choose from GM, Waymo, JLR and a recently announced self-driving pilot program with the Boston-based autonomous car tech startup Nutonomy.
Lyft’s chief strategy officer Raj Kapoor wouldn’t comment on comparisons between the two but did say Lyft had the means to attract top talent, a list of trusted partners and critical data needed to build out the system.
A lot of what will come out of this system seems TBD for now. Lyft will still need to hire that top talent, build out its engineering team and work out how to share data with each car manufacturer it partners with.
There may also be some regulatory issues. Comma.ai canceled sales of its own self-driving kit, which allowed certain cars to gain autopilot-like highway driving assistance abilities, after a warning letter from the National Highway and Travel Safety Administration (NHTSA). The issue stemmed from regulations around selling such a kit. Rather than fighting the NHTSA, Comma.ai later open-sourced the blueprint for the kit, allowing anyone to build it themselves for free.
However, Lyft employs a team to work on regulatory matters and has made in-roads in Washington for other issues in the past.
The other thing to consider, with all this talk of unleashing the unmanned robots to drive us, is the toll it will take on Uber’s and Lyft’s human drivers. Though Lyft believes the day we replace all the humans is far off, it makes economic sense for ridesharing companies to veer down that path and autonomous vehicles will inevitably take over at some point.
Lyft has said in the past that these drivers could transition into new roles within the company and that the new technology will create new jobs. It’s not clear if all the drivers would get new jobs, how many jobs would be created or how much they’d be paid. It’s also not clear if they’d go for a more traditional role rather than the freedom they once enjoyed making their own hours as a driver.