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Lyft to Deploy Autonomous Cars by End of 2017

Ride-hailing company Lyft announced Friday that self-driving vehicles will be picking up customer  by the end of the year, Brian Fung of The Washington Post reports. The first autonomous Lyft cars will drive on the streets of Boston, but Lyft ultimately aims to create a network of hundreds of thousands of autonomous vehicles, which it will deploy across the country.

A litany of factors, including route, traffic, and weather, will determine whether an autonomous car arrives to pick up a Lyft user. The company’s website promises the dispatching algorithm will send a self-driving car only when there is “the highest confidence in routes and conditions.”

Lyft is leaving most of the development work to its numerous partners, which include Nutonomy, a software firm specializing in self-driving car technology; GM, which has already developed and tested 130 autonomous Chevy Bolts; and Jaguar Land Rover. Still, Lyft itself will “build sensor packages and other hardware on a limited basis.”

The partnership will allow automakers like GM who are developing autonomous vehicles to employ and hone their new technology amidst Lyft’s network of almost one million daily riders.

“We’re building a way for third parties to plug their self-driving cars into our network,” Luc Vincent, vice president of engineering at Lyft, told The Washington Post.

On its website, Lyft claims to offer “the most efficient way to bring…autonomous technology to the market.” The service will give autonomous cars “millions of weekly miles,” the website says, and work to “accelerate the growth of self-driving technology.”

The sensors on autonomous Lyft cars will collect and store data partners can use to develop safer, more reliable, and more efficient self-driving cars. Lyft will have propriety over said data, and will only share it with those it chooses.

Lyft is positioning itself as a pioneer in the autonomous car space, and betting that by getting in early, it can stake a claim and remain a focal point of the industry for years to come.

Kelly Blue Book analyst Karl Brauer pointed out to The Washington Post that years down the road, auto manufacturers will “still want [Lyft] to jumpstart their network of users that’ll be using the self-driving cars.”

In the short term—and perhaps also the long term—Lyft, along with ride-hailing companies like it, who will presumably follow suit (Uber already uses a few self-driving cars), will be the only avenue by which self-driving technology is available to consumers. That exclusivity could precipitate a boom in the ride-haling industry, and ultimately a concomitant drop in private vehicle ownership

Many analysts see a future of safer streets and more comfortable transportation. Some predict autonomous technology will ultimately reduce traffic accidents caused by human error by 95%, Fung says. Moreover, passengers in self-driving cars will have access to luxuries they could not afford as drivers: they can read the paper, have a business meeting, even toss back a beer or two.

Lyft does not plan to let go of its human employees. As autonomous cars become ubiquitous, today’s Lyft drivers will become “in-car baristas” and/or assistants for passengers requiring physical aid. Getting a ride may turn into a full-service entertainment experience.

But there are a number of kinks to work out, both regulatory and technological. Self-driving cars have never been tested on such a wide scale before, and many of those that have hit public streets have encountered issues. There is no better way to hone technology than to test it in real-world situations, but trusting nascent technology to handle a grave responsibility like driving a car is worrisome. To help alleviate safety concerns, a Lyft engineer will be stationed in the front seat of each autonomous vehicle, to monitor the car’s performance and keep everything running smoothly.

At present, rules and regulations governing development and testing of self-driving vehicles are drafted at the state level, which means such vehicles may be prohibited from crossing state lines, Fung says.  These restrictions make a company like Lyft an appropriate testing ground for the technology: Lyft can deploy a huge fleet of vehicles in a single city or state, and those vehicles can drive millions upon millions of miles, without having to leave that city or state.

Fung also notes that a house subcommittee approved a bill Wednesday that could “establish the first federal laws governing self driving cars.”

Whatever the obstacles, Lyft has set forth a bold timetable for the introduction of autonomous cars onto the streets and into the culture of America.

“You’re going to see it,” Lyft’s senior director of product, Taggert Mathiesen, told the Post. You’re going to see these vehicles on the street.”

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons

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