Ride-hail companies’ forward strategy for driverless mobility solutions, explored by Eric Volkman.

The ever-accelerating drive to full autonomy has received a fresh boost from the ride-hailing world when Lyft announced the opening of its a research centre dedicated to the technology. The facility has an appropriate name and location; it’s called the Level 5 Engineering Centre, and sits in Palo Alto in California’s Silicon Valley. It’s to open later this year and, by the end of 2018, employ a team of several hundred people.

The company means to be a leader in the transition to a self-driving future in the ride-hailing business. “Today we are at the forefront of the largest transportation change any of us will ever see,” said company spokesperson Gwen Belomy. “We are committed to working closely with our partners to develop and introduce the world’s best transportation ecosystem, of which self-driving cars will play a huge role.”

Autonomous vehicles will not only be a major part of this future, they’ll determine the winners in the ride-hailing business as well. For obvious reasons, the company that can build its self-driving fleet and put it on the road first will have an immediate and hard-to-surmount advantage over the competition.

The co-founder and former CEO of Lyft’s top rival, Uber, admitted as much in a 2016 interview with Business Insider. “What would happen if we weren’t a part of that future?” said Travis Kalanick. “If we weren’t part of the autonomy thing? Then the future passes us by.”

Once Lyft fully develops the autonomous technology it needs to ferry its customers to their destinations, it will deploy such vehicles post-haste. This won’t, however, mean the company’s entire fleet will transform to robo-drive vehicles overnight. Belomy said that “the programme will be limited to a subset of cars in specific markets”.

It’s going to be the same for Uber. A spokesperson for the company said that “even as the technology evolves and technical issues are fixed, we believe ridesharing will be a mix for a long time, with rides provided by drivers and self-driving Ubers. This is because of the limits of self-driving global software and the skyrocketing demand for better transportation that drivers are uniquely able to solve. The past has shown that technology creates new work opportunities, while disrupting existing ones.”

In the most likely scenario, Lyft and Uber will run self-driving vehicles along major roads to popular destinations; in other words, routes and places that can be programmed and present few navigational challenges. For harder-to-reach destinations, such as those on rough or unpaved roads or on routes that present topographical difficulties, a flesh-and-blood human will take the wheel.

Even bringing the ride-hailing world to that limited autonomous future is going to be an expensive, daunting task requiring a great deal of hard work and brainpower. It’s a tough road to travel alone, so Lyft has made great lengths to partner with companies already involved in the effort. Earlier this year it struck a deal with Waymo, the autonomous division of Google owner Alphabet, to merge their efforts. It’s got similar arrangements with auto makers General Motors and Jaguar Land Rover, in addition to ambitious software company NuTonomy.

That’s in contrast to Uber, which is going at it more or less alone for its fleet of autonomous cars. Another difference is that Lyft has thrown open its platform. Lyft’s Belomy said that her company’s “approach is similar to an ecosystem, with many partners working together to accelerate the introduction of [autonomous vehicles]. The top operators,” she added, “need to work together.”

Lyft is quick to point out that it has plenty to offer interested parties connecting with its platform. “Every day, there are over one million rides completed on our network in over 350 cities,” the company’s vice-president of engineering Luc Vincent wrote in a post on Medium.com. “We are already able to use the data collected during these rides to understand our world better... For example, we gain insights into factors like traffic patterns, demand hotspots and driver utilisation by region.” Lyft aims to pack more sensors onto its cars in the proximate future, which should turn that river of data into a flood.

So, with all that data getting crunched into workable, real-world information to guide autonomous cars, humans will quickly disappear from the driver’s seats of Lyft cars. Yes, they will still pilot most of the company’s rides after the rollout of self-driving Lyfts but they won’t be in the majority for long. Although the company believes its fleet will never be 100% autonomous, Lyft anticipates that its mix will tilt in favour of ‘robo-cars’ within a mere five years after its self-driving cars hit the streets. This shift will be mirrored by an increased dependency on ride-sharing services in urban areas; the company believes 2025 will be the final year of private car ownership in major US cities.

If correct, at that point, it will be standard practice for riders to order a car, be delivered one that’s completely self-piloting, and zip along… while almost forgetting it was once normal for a human to pilot the craft. Well, we’ll see won’t we?

[Mob.Volkman.2017.07.24]

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