Lyft races into self-driving vehicle tech

Eric Newcomer
Bloomberg News

Ride-hailing provider Lyft Inc., emboldened by public stumbles by larger rival Uber Technologies Inc., is taking the leap into developing its own fully autonomous vehicles.

Lyft is opening a self-driving vehicle development facility in Palo Alto, California, called “Level 5,” a nod to the designation of fully autonomous vehicles that don’t require human supervision. Several hundred employees will work there by the end of next year, the company said. Ten percent of its software engineers are working on autonomous vehicles now, Lyft said.

Until Friday’s announcement, Lyft’s public self-driving effort has focused on partnerships. Lyft is working with General Motors Co., Jaguar Land Rover and Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo. The company plans to roll out a self-driving pilot program in Boston with autonomous vehicle company Nutonomy. Lyft said its partnership-centric approach is not changing — even as it develops its own autonomous technology, it will continue to partner with other companies that are trying to build self-driving cars.

“We want a proactive role in pushing the industry,” Raj Kapoor, Lyft’s chief strategy officer, said at the company’s San Francisco offices. “We need to be playing this role. You can’t just be looking for partners to do it.”

A continuously expanding pack of technology companies and auto-makers are rushing into the development of autonomous vehicles, making self-driving car researchers some of the most highly paid and in-demand people in the world. It’s impossible to know when fully autonomous vehicles will be available for public consumption. While companies like Uber and Nutonomy are already running public tests, drivers still have to be ready to intervene when something goes wrong.

Lyft, the No. 2 ride-hailing company, believes that it may be able to catch up to other companies that have spent years researching autonomous vehicles. It can buy sensor devices like lidar off the shelf. Lyft also believes that it has a major advantage over automakers when it comes to data collection. The company is considering equipping some vehicles rented to drivers through the Express Drive program with sensors to allow Lyft to collect more data for its self-driving and mapping research.

Automakers without self-driving cars will find an eager partner in Lyft. “Lyft is not getting into the business of manufacturing a car,” Kapoor said. “The auto industry has done a fantastic job with safety and reliability.”

Lyft is mirroring — whether it wants to admit it or not — Uber’s autonomous strategy, though years behind its larger rival and with a shallower bench of talent. In February 2015, Uber announced its Advanced Technologies Group in Pittsburgh and hired researchers from Carnegie Mellon University to work on its program. Then, in August 2016, Uber bought Otto, a small team of self-driving truck researchers formed by former Alphabet engineers,in a $680 million stock deal. Uber is facing a protracted trade secrets suit brought by Waymo that alleges that Otto co-founder Anthony Levandowski stole 14,000 proprietary files while he worked at Alphabet’s self-driving car company.

Lyft’s effort has been quieter and smaller. Lyft hired Luc Vincent, a former senior director of engineering at Alphabet’s Google who helped develop Google Street View, in February 2017. Vincent is leading the development of Lyft’s autonomous effort.