Ford says that Lyft customers in Miami, Florida, and Austin, Texas will soon be able to request a self-driving car from Argo AI, a company backed by Ford and Volkswagen. The cars will first arrive in Miami by the end of the year, and Austin sometime in 2022.
Companies developing autonomous vehicles promised that they’d be available to the public far sooner than has actually happened. Rather, it still hasn’t happened even though Ford and Lyft, among others, predicted we’d be riding around in them by now. But it turns out that teaching a car to follow lane markings is far easier to accomplish than the other 99 percent of things driving safely entails.
Still early days — Self-driving cars offer a lot of potential benefits, and thankfully we’re starting to see small whimpers of life. Google’s Waymo division already offers a small robotaxi program to the public in Arizona, and now Ford is making good on its promise to make them available to the masses.
Fewer than 100 vehicles will be available in the Lyft fleet to start, across both cities, but Argo AI’s goal is to deploy 1,000 of its cars in the next five years. For now, there will still be safety drivers in the car, which will continue to have a steering wheel and pedals. Waymo’s vehicles are entirely driverless, as seen in YouTube videos from riders, though the service is limited to a small geographic area and very few beta users.
Tough business — Lyft earlier this year abandoned its efforts to develop autonomous vehicles in-house, selling its autonomous research division for $550 million, as the company aims to reach profitability. Uber also spun off its division after it spent billions of dollars on the initiative only to be left with a vehicle that reportedly couldn’t drive more than half a mile without needing human intervention. Other players like Waymo have been developing their technology for over a decade and still haven’t truly released anything.
Needless to say, it’s an expensive business to play in, and it’s believed to be years before autonomous cars will be ready for widespread adoption. Having access to huge sums of capital is necessary, which is probably why several self-driving companies have consolidated to strengthen their positions.
Today’s news is a sign that Lyft is still interested in self-driving cars, it just won’t make them. You’d have to wonder, if the cars drive themselves, why would Argo and other makers of self-driving cars even need Lyft at all? But the large network of riders will give Argo access to crucial data it can use to improve its systems. In exchange for that data, Lyft gets a 2.5 percent stake in Argo, which has an expected value of about $12.4 billion. That could end up being worth a lot; when Uber exited China, it took a 12 percent stake in rival Didi that’s worth an estimated $8.1 billion. Taking a waiver isn’t necessarily a bad business decision.
Eventually, Lyft and Uber (as well as other ridesharing companies) probably hope their strong brands will enable them to continue serving as the intermediary through which people hail rides and request food.