Lyft is starting to get serious about self-driving cars.
The app-based taxi service is forming a new autonomous vehicle division that will be based in a new center in Palo Alto, the company announced Thursday.
Lyft plans to open the center, dubbed “Level 5” after the term for fully autonomous driving, within the next few weeks. It plans to have several hundred people working in the facility by the end of 2018. The center will have room for vehicle bays, labs, and most importantly, representatives of Lyft’s partners in the auto industry.
While some companies are going it alone in developing self-driving cars, Lyft thinks it’s a much better idea to team up with other players in the auto and transportation industries and collaborate openly, said Raj Kapoor, Lyft’s chief strategy officer, during a press conference Thursday at the company’s San Francisco headquarters. Among Lyft’s partners are Waymo, Google’s self driving car division; General Motors; nuTonomy, a self-driving car startup out of MIT; and Jaguar Land Rover. Lyft officials also hinted that the company will announce another partnership in the near future.
During the event, Luc Vincent, Lyft’s vice president of engineering, detailed the company’s plans for its open self-driving car system. Lyft is working on something that resembles a 3D map that will show passengers their car’s route, the road ahead, and what the car is seeing around it. The company is hoping the map will help passengers feel more comfortable in — and ceding control to — driverless cars.
To understand what’s going on around them, autonomous vehicles will need a lot of data on scenarios they might encounter on the road. Taking advantage of its large network of drivers, Lyft is already deploying sensors on their cars to gather such data. It’s also collecting information on the routes they drive that will help it create a mapping system for the vehicles.
Lyft’s partners will be able to plug its mapping system into their cars and benefit from all the millions of miles travelled by Lyft drivers.
It may seem odd to have so many businesses, some of which are direct competitors, collaborating on self-driving cars. But many companies in the industry are coming to the conclusion that working with partners is a lot more cost effective than what would be involved in going solo, Kapoor said. And going it alone with self-driving cars may well be impossible.
Lyft, in conjunction with nuTonomy, plans to have autonomous cars on the road in Boston by the end of this year. Company officials declined to say when, exactly, they will hit the roads or whether the cars will be available for hire by the public.
Even with this initial move, though, people shouldn’t expect to see fleets of self-driving cars replacing people-driven ones overnight. At least in the near term, Lyft envisions a hybrid network that would be comprised of both people-driven cars and autonomous vehicles, said Taggart Matthiesen, Lyft’s director of product. When customers request rides, Lyft would still dispatch human drivers in scenarios that driverless cars find challenging, such as pickups in front of sports stadium, where there are lots of pedestrians and cars coming together at once.
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