Lyft is adding yet another new name to its growing list of official self-driving partners and this one already has an established track record of putting autonomous cars on real life streets.
The ride hailing company just announced a new agreement with nuTonomy, the MIT-founded startup that was the first to test a self-driving program carrying passengers alongside real traffic on city streets. That pilot program started in Singapore in August 2016, beating Uber’s Pittsburgh program to the road by a month. There, nuTonomy teamed with ride-hailing app Grab to connect with the public on a limited basis.
The new partnership between Lyft and nuTonomy will aim to put self-driving cars on the streets of nuTonomy’s home city, Boston, where the startup has been conducting road tests since late last year. The pilot program will be the first time Lyft uses self-driving cars for its fares but if the company’s plans come to fruition, it will be far from the last.
The first stage of the partnership is to be based around research and development (R&D) to fine-tune the rider experience, which Lyft CEO Logan Green called “the first step” in understanding the how the platform will operate on a call with members of the press ahead of the announcement.
“We’re focused on creating a great end-to-end experience,” he said, but he provided precious few details about exactly what that meant. He claimed that there will be rides available in the nuTonomy autonomous vehicles immediately in one moment, and in another admitted that there would need to be a development period before that can happen.
Following the call, a Lyft spokesperson confirmed that a public component to the program “would be at least a few months away,” pending “explicit regulatory approval” to avoid an Uber-esque fiasco.
When asked exactly how many vehicles will be involved in the pilot, Green had no specifics to share. He said to start the size of the fleet was “TBD,” but that engineers from Lyft and nuTonomy are currently working on the platform on several vehicles to integrate the systems. Ultimately, the goal is to have “thousands of vehicles” on the road in the future; when that future will be exactly was left unclear.
The cars, which will be Renault Zoe electric cars like those used in the Singapore program, will be owned by nuTonomy, which has a separate partnership with Renault’s parent company, the PSA Group.
The Lyft app will be tweaked for the self-driving pilot, and Green hinted that it will be extended into the car with a version of the app running on a console inside the vehicle.
The program is headed to Boston largely due to nuTonomy’s ties to the city the startup spun out from MIT and still calls Boston home. nuTonomy CEO Karl lagnemma called Boston “open and collaborative,” on the call before stating that the tests currently underway there added to the decision.
Spreading out the playing field
Lyft now has three deals tied to autonomous car development in place; the ride hailing company also has pacts with Google’s Waymo and GM, which also invested $500 million in the company and holds a seat on Lyft’s board of directors.
Lyft unsurprisingly looks at the agreement with startup nuTonomy on a separate scale from the other arrangements. “What we’re doing with other partners are very different,” Green said on the call.
“Our work with each partner is unique and differentiated per partner,” Lyft’s reps told us in a follow-up email. “We are not disclosing the details of the work we are doing with each partner.”
Even if the company won’t comment on the its separate engagements, a pattern is emerging: Lyft isn’t betting on one horse to bring autonomous ride-hailing services to the masses. It will cut deals with smaller start-ups touting well-established track records just as soon as it will with the biggest tech and automotive companies in the world. Lyft will team with anyone as long as they have a good chance at ushering in the next generation of autonomous mobility.
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