The supposedly kinder, gentler, and self-described “woke” rideshare service Lyft has been feasting on the entrails of scandal-ravaged competitor Uber as of late. But a new self-driving car announcement from Lyft today signifies they’re also developing a forward-thinking strategy of stealing Uber’s market share in the robot car-driven future. According to an announcement picked up by Recode, Lyft will be offering San Francisco customers rides in self-driving autonomous vehicles “by the end of the year,” and rides in this pilot program will be offered for free.
Lyft does not have its own fleet of self-driving cars, but they’ve found a startup to provide them. Drive.ai a company that does allegedly exist, and claims to be developing “kits” that transform normal cars into self-driving cars has signed on as a partner with Lyft to furnish the vehicles left doesn't have a CA DMV permit to test self-driving cars, but Drive.ai does. According to Wired, “select customers in the San Francisco Bay Area will be offered free rides in autonomous cars,” and Wired’s Alex Davies identifies the self-driving cars as Lincoln MKZs and Audi A4 sedans.
This announcement seems more intended to generate headlines and publicity than, you know, actual rides in self-driving cars. There was no detail announced with regards to when the pilot might start, nor how “select” Lyft customers will be selected to get these free robot car rides (though Consumerist notes that Lyft ride-hailers will have to “opt in” for an autonomous ride). This Drive.ai startup does not really have a much of a track record, but Wired points out that they just received $50 million in Series B funding.
The autonomous Lyft rides will have a human safety driver in case the machines go haywire, and a Lyft spokesperson tells CNet, "Lyft will invite passengers to participate in the public trial on a variety of roads in the Bay Area." CNet also notes that Drive.ai only has permits for a total of six self-driving cars in the state of California. Surely they’ll attempt to get more permits, but this still appears to be a pretty modest pilot program.
What’s more significant is that the pilot program will be conducted right here in San Francisco, a locale which has scared off a variety of the big-name autonomous vehicle competitors. Oh sure, Uber rolled out some self-driving cars in San Francisco with absolutely no regulatory permission last year, but were forced to eat shit on that plan after the cars kept running red lights. Uber has since moved their testing to Arizona, while Google’s Waymo has been testing their autonomous vehicles down in Mountain View.
SFist readers will realize this is not the first time Lyft has made some splashy self-driving announcement. Lyft got an autonomous car investment from GM in 2016, partnered with Google/Alphabet-owned Waymo this past spring and announced a “Level Five” engineering division in Palo Alto earlier this summer. While these separate initiatives don't seem to coalesce into any form of coherent strategy, that may be the point. (And the engineering division, as announced, was going to be focused on software and "kits" like Drive.ai is making, as opposed to whole vehicles.) Lyft may just be throwing darts and placing eggs into as many autonomous car baskets as possible, in hopes of being properly aligned with whomever is first to market with a self-driving car that customers like and doesn’t kill anyone.