After years of single-minded focus on developing the technology for automated vehicles, the companies pushing to make self-driving cars a reality are now devoting more attention to the human beings who will ride in them. Over the past six months, both Volvo and Waymo have launched projects designed to examine how ordinary motorists use self-driving technology. Now, ride-hailing service Lyft and autonomous-vehicle software provider nuTonomy announced they have embarked on a similar project.
Executives from the two companies said they’re forming a research-and-development partnership to explore the user experience of autonomous vehicles employed in ride-sharing roles. Their work will cover the entire ride, from the moment a user opens a ride-hailing app on a personal device through the time a passenger exits a vehicle.
“There will be changes to the Lyft app, and a handful of things that will work very differently when you’re not just giving verbal instructions to a driver,” Lyft co-founder and chief executive officer Logan Green said. “We will be extending the Lyft app experience into the vehicle, and we think this will be a unique part of the experience.”
Work begins immediately in Boston, where nuTonomy has been testing fully automated vehicles since November 2016. For now, the tests are confined to that city’s Raymond L. Flynn Marine Park and two adjacent neighborhoods. An engineer from nuTonomy will ride in each test vehicle to observe and will take control if necessary.
NuTonomy will use the Renault Zoe for testing, and it’s possible further vehicles produced by the PSA Group will be used later. Last month, nuTonomy and the French auto conglomerate inked a deal to deploy a commercial ride-hailing service in Singapore. For the purposes of the new R&D partnership with Lyft, nuTonomy will own the vehicles.
Spun out of nearby MIT in 2013, nuTonomy became the first company to deploy robo-taxis when it started tests in Singapore last year. With the Lyft partnership, the company could take what it learned from that environment and eventually deploy them on a far larger scale.
“Our definition of success is to open with many thousands of autonomous vehicles on the Lyft platform in the future.”
– Karl Iagnemma, nuTonomy
“NuTonomy is working to integrate the first couple of vehicles on the Lyft platform and will ramp up over time, with specifics to be determined,” said nuTonomy co-founder Karl Iagnemma. “Our definition of success is to open with many thousands of autonomous vehicles on the Lyft platform in the future.”
In May, Lyft confirmed an agreement with Waymo, the company that emerged from the Google self-driving-car project, to work together on product development. Separately, General Motors invested $500 million in Lyft in 2016, and the two companies are working to develop autonomous Chevrolet Bolt EV cars for use in ride-hailing services. Green declined to discuss the differences in what Lyft hopes to achieve with each specific partnership. But as autonomous development progresses, Iagnemma says it only makes sense that transportation network companies pair with software developers and car companies.
“Everyone is looking to get these autonomous cars ready and in place,” he said. “To get to market, it’s more than the car. You need the technology and the network. Today, we’re talking about a big chunk of the necessary components to establish really strong positions in autonomous mobility services.”
Currently, ride-hailing services account for about a quarter of 1 percent of all vehicle miles traveled on U.S. roads, according to Lyft statistics, but both companies envision stratospheric growth in that share of the road. Decades from now, Green said, Lyft believes ride sharing and ride hailing will account for 80 percent of vehicle miles traveled, a projection in line with an earlier one from Lyft co-founder John Zimmer that projected the death of car ownership in cities within 10 years.
The number of workers in the “rides” industry who contract with firms as freelancers or independent contractors increased by 63 percent between 2014 and 2015, according to a study released last week by the Brookings Institution. That amounts to 217,000 workers joining transportation network companies in a single year.
Without delving into specific numbers, Iagnemma shared Lyft’s general outlook. “We have a very common perspective on the way this space is going to evolve and the way people are going to move around [in] cities,” he said. “Lyft, for us, we view as a really strong partner, and when we enter the mobility-as-a-service market, we can establish a strong position.”