Ride hailing giant Lyft has announced a complete u-turn on its policy and will now build its own self-driving platform and potentially double its workforce.
Is this a power play to take advantage of the chaos at Uber?
The new driving research center will be in Palo Alto, home of Tesla and the tech firm has started recruiting new staff.
“We aren’t thinking of our self-driving division as a side project. It’s core to our business,” Luc Vincent, vice president of autonomous technology at Lyft, wrote in a blog post. “That’s why 10 percent of our engineers are already focused on developing self-driving technology — and we’ll continue to grow that team in the months ahead.”
A radical move from Lyft
It’s a stepchange for a company that seemed content to partner with the likes of Google’s Waymo, NuTonomy and GM.
Indeed, just weeks ago we asked how Lyft could manage an increasing number of technical partnerships in an industry that is notorious for its secrecy.
Lyft’s main competitor, Uber, has already fallen foul of Intellectual Property issues and is now mired in controversy. It was just one of the issues that led to the downfall of founder and CEO Travis Kalanick.
It seemed that Lyft’s decision to stay out of the development side was a shrewd one, but the ride-hailing company has now revealed plans for a Silicon Valley-based facility and a ‘hybrid network’ of its own.
Lyft did create an open platform earlier in the year, but this is a whole new level and it remains to be seen how it develops.
Robots and humans in perfect harmony
That hybrid network will be a combination of autonomous cars and human owner-drivers. It’s an interesting strategy that means Lyft can send self-driving cars on the simple routes and maintain a fleet of traditional drivers that can take the challenging fares.
Self -driving systems can still run into trouble in adverse weather and Lyft might opt not to trust them in heavy traffic and city centers.
It needs to fill the gaps in its own maps, too, so a driver might be better than a robotic taxi on certain rural routes.
“It is not just going to happen tomorrow. It will take time. What you will see is in small pockets, in isolation, these vehicles will start providing service,” Taggart Mattheisen, Lyft’s Senior Director of Product.
Lyft is also keen to build on that open platform and create a universal system it’s partners can plug into. But it won’t give us specific details how that will work.
Following Tesla’s lead, at a distance
Like Tesla, it will fit data capture hardware to a number of its human-operated cars in a bid to train its self-driving software and it will have to collaborate with its partners to feed as much real-world information as it possibly can.
But unlike Tesla, Lyft is well behind the curve and it is going to have to lean heavily on all of its partners and spend big if it wants to close the gap.
It may have smelt blood in the water now that Uber is mired in problems of its own making and decided to go for glory in the ride-hailing sector.
If that’s the case, it’s a very bold move and we’ll have to see how it plays out.