Lyft announced a new partnership today with Boston-based self-driving car startup NuTonomy to eventually put “thousands” of on-demand, autonomous vehicles on the road. In the meantime, the two companies said they intend to launch a limited pilot in Boston within the next few months, in which Lyft users will be able to hail one of NuTonomy’s driverless vehicles by using Lyft’s app.
It’s not Lyft’s first dalliance with self-driving partnerships. Last month, the company announced its plan to work with Alphabet’s Waymo on autonomous technology. And previously, GM invested $500 million in Lyft with the goal of eventually deploying its driverless Chevy Bolts on the ride-hail network. John Zimmer and Logan Green, Lyft’s co-founders, are on record saying that they expect the majority of the company’s rides to take place in autonomous vehicles by 2021.
So while Lyft has declined to wade into the thorny mess of developing its own autonomous technology — probably for the best, considering the quagmire its main rival Uber currently finds itself in — it has racked up a host of eager partners willing to feature their own self-driving cars on Lyft’s app.
But if these new partnerships conflict in any way, Lyft wouldn’t say: in a call with reporters on Monday, Green would only say that each collaboration is unique to itself. “What we’re doing with other partners is very different,” Green said. Pressed on how exactly they are different, he replied, “I can’t comment on those other programs.”
A Lyft spokesperson later added, “We are not disclosing the details of the work we are doing with each partner. Overall, we’re partnering with leaders in this space who share a vision of solving transportation issues and positively impact the future of our cities.”
What we do know, though, is that even though the Lyft / Waymo partnership was announced back in May, NuTonomy’s self-driving cars will be the first ones available on Lyft’s platform. NuTonomy, which spun out of MIT in 2013 and has been operating autonomous taxis in Singapore since 2016, recently received permission to test its vehicles in Boston. Its partnership with Lyft will kick off in the city in the coming months, giving Lyft users the chance to hail a ride in one of NuTonomy’s self-driving Renault Zoe electric cars through the ride-hail app.
Green said the first stage of his company’s partnership with NuTonomy will be focused on “R&D around understanding the passenger experience.” That will likely include bringing some elements of the Lyft app into the car itself. “There will be a version of the Lyft application running on a console inside the car,” Green confirmed.
Uber has placed tablets in the backseats of its self-driving cars so passengers can see how the vehicle’s sensors perceive the surrounding environment — as well as snap a selfie. Its unclear whether Lyft’s in-car app experience will attempt something similar, but NuTonomy CEO Karl Iagnemma said their plan is to focus on “optimizing” the passenger experience by “sharing knowledge” about how the vehicle is driving itself.
“We don’t really know in detail how riders are going to engage with autonomous vehicles because we just haven’t frankly had that much real-world experience,” Iagnemma added.
It wasn’t too long ago that Lyft’s co-founders were dismissing Uber’s public trials as a “marketing stunt.” But a lot has changed in the past year. Now tech companies see value in normalizing a futuristic and potentially scary-sounding technology in order to get Average Joes used the idea of cars driving themselves. The ultimate goal is safety, but polls show that drivers are wary, if not downright reluctant, about turning over their steering wheels to a computer.
Both Uber and Waymo are offering rides to the public in Arizona. Uber is also operating a small fleet of self-driving cars in Pittsburgh (though the company’s relationship with the city government appears to be souring). And almost three dozen companies have signed up to test their autonomous cars in California, although none have gone so far as to invite average people rides. (Uber tried, and was quickly rebuked for not following the state’s protocols.)
NuTonomy has a Memorandum of Understanding with the city of Boston and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation to operate its self-driving cars within a specific area — but that MOU doesn’t include offering rides to members of the public. Lyft says it won’t launch its own pilot until it has also received the green light from city and state regulators. The company is being careful to avoid the pitfalls that Uber ran into in California, when it was forced to end its self-driving pilot in San Francisco a week after launching because of a flap with the DMV.
“Current regulations in the testing zone don’t allow for passengers to ride in autonomous vehicles and we will not launch without explicit regulatory approval,” a spokesperson said. Lyft expects to receive that approval “in a couple months,” she added.