Lyft has been trying to gain momentum on the incessant slip-ups of its main competitor Uber, and this week it took another step to gain some ground: The company says it’s going to develop its own self-driving technology, following a string of announced partnerships to focus on bringing autonomous cars to the public.
On Friday, Lyft announced that it’s opening a self-driving division called the Level 5 Engineering Center (a nod to the industry definition of a fully-autonomous car), with the intention of developing hardware and software for robot cars. Also it’s a different Level 5 from this lvl5.
In a post on Medium, the company said it would focus on developing an open self-driving system. It’s the latest entrant into a crowded field of traditional automakers and tech giants who believe self-driving cars will revolutionize the transportation business in the coming years.
“To be clear, we aren’t thinking of our self-driving division as a side project,” wrote Luc Vincent, Lyft’s vice president of engineering, in the Medium post. “It’s core to our business.”
Vincent said that 10 percent of the company’s engineering team is focused on developing self-driving cars, and that group is expected to grow in the coming months.
While Lyft may be a late entry in the self-driving car race, it’s amassed a series of partnerships that position itself to capitalize on efforts to bring autonomous cars to a ride-hailing platform by early next decade. In May, Lyft announced a partnerships with Google’s self-driving car program, Waymo, though details on the deal have been sparse. Weeks later, it revealed a partnership with nuTonomy, a tech start-up that’ll work with Lyft to launch an autonomous pilot program in Boston later this year. It also has a significant partnership with General Motors, which previously invested $500 million in the company.
Most importantly, the move announced on Friday signals that Lyft’s interested in competing directly with Uber, which has spent millions on developing self-driving cars and already launched pilot programs in cities across the U.S. Uber has been ensnared in litigation with Waymo, which accused the ride-hailing giant of using stolen trade secrets to accelerate the development of its own self-driving car program. The case is expected to head to trial in October.
The biggest difference, it seems, is Lyft plans to develop self-driving tech from a collaborative approach. Uber and Waymo have flown solo, for the most part, beyond partnering with car companies to install their technology for testing purposes.
As Vincent put it, Lyft thinks that’ll allow its self-driving tech to develop at a rapid pace. While the company has suggested it doesn’t believe car ownership will last beyond the next decade, Vincent said on Friday that Lyft will “always operate a hybrid network, with rides from both human-driven and self-driving cars.”
“When a passenger requests a ride that a self-driving car can complete, we may send one to complete the trip,” he wrote. “If that person needs to go somewhere self-driving cars are unable to navigate, or their needs call for a different level of service, they will have a driver. But in either event, we’ll make sure everyone can get where they need to go.”
It’s a weird scenario, though. Lyft’s self-driving vehicles will essentially be competing with vehicles introduced by partners like Waymo. Maybe Lyft is trying to diversify itself to become more attractive to a potential suitor down the line; it’s valued significantly less than Uber, by about 10-fold.
Maybe it felt like it had no choice; when everyone else is taking a stab at trying to grab a piece of the autonomous car pie, it’s perhaps hard to avoid.
Lyft nonetheless sees the arrangement as workable.
“In the years ahead, we will continue to bring the world’s leading automotive and technology companies onto this single platform to serve a nationwide passenger network,” Vincent wrote. “And together, we will continue to drive toward a single, shared objective: to build the world’s best transportation ecosystem.”
It’s a cutthroat, costly battle—but, if anything, Lyft’s move is another sign that the industry’s trying to move as quick as possible to cut out drivers and bring a robotaxi sector to life.