Coverage: GM, Lyft to test self-driving taxis within year
Pink moustaches will now adorn a fleet of self-driving electric taxis, after General Motors Co. and Lyft Inc. announced Thursday their plans to to test driverless taxis within the year.
The project is aimed at three primary competitors — Apple, Alphabet and Uber.
Mike Ramsey and Gautham Nagesh of The Wall Street Journal had the day’s news:
General Motors Co. and Lyft Inc. within a year will begin testing a fleet of self-driving Chevrolet Bolt electric taxis on public roads, a move central to the companies’ joint efforts to challenge Silicon Valley giants in the battle to reshape the auto industry.
The plan is being hatched a few months after GM invested $500 million in Lyft, a ride-hailing company whose services rival Uber Technologies Inc. The program will rely on technology being acquired as part of GM’s separate $1 billion planned purchase of San Francisco-based Cruise Automation Inc., a developer of autonomous-driving technology.
Details of the autonomous-taxi testing program are still being worked out, according to a Lyft executive, but it will include customers in a yet-to-be disclosed city. Customers will have the opportunity to opt in or out of the pilot when hailing a Lyft car from the company’s mobile app.
In addition to driverless cars, GM aims to use Lyft and its growing army of drivers as a primary customer for the Bolt, an electric car that launches later this year amid soft demand for electric vehicles. The Detroit auto giant and Lyft currently rent the Chevy Equinox to drivers needing vehicles in Chicago, but that program will expand to more cities and will rely heavily on Bolts in the future instead of the sport-utility vehicle.
Because the Bolt’s battery is under the cabin floor, it opens up space in the front of the vehicle and offers back-seat passengers more leg room. GM executives have touted the car as an ideal fit for drivers needing space and lower operating cost.
GM’s effort to rapidly hem together recent big-dollar investments is an answer to the tech industry’s efforts to displace conventional auto makers. Many global auto makers have been lapped by key developments born in Silicon Valley, including Tesla Motors Inc.’s electric cars, Alphabet Inc.’s Google autonomous car program and Uber’s ride-sharing business.
The new effort is directed mostly at challenging Alphabet and Uber. The Google self-driving car program has gained a sizable lead over conventional auto makers via testing in California and other states, and it received an additional boost this week through a minivan-supply agreement with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV. Uber, much bigger than Lyft, has its own self-driving research center in Pittsburgh and is preparing to usher autonomous vehicles in to its fleet by 2020.
Michael Wayland and Melissa Burden of The Detroit News explained the logistics between GM and Lyft’s partnership:
GM, through its pending acquisition of Cruise Automation, will inherit the software company’s license to test autonomous vehicles in the Golden State, according to a source familiar with the plans.
Taggart Matthiesen, Lyft director of product, said details of the program with GM are still being discussed. “We’re still working on the technology, but I think we’re in a position where we basically have a plan as to how we want to roll this out,” he said during an interview Thursday in Detroit, ahead of an appearance as part of Techweek Detroit. “We’re trying to measure this in months, not years.”
Matthiesen said the first phase of testing the vehicles on public roadways would likely involve a handful of cars with “safety drivers” whom are in the driver seat of the autonomous cars in case something unexpected occurs.
Plans for an autonomous fleet were originally announced when GM acquired announced it was investing $500 million in Lyft in January, but no timetable was given.
Matthiesen declined to offer a timeframe of when the companies want to deploy the vehicles on U.S. roadways, citing appropriate city polices and legislation must be approved prior to any testing occurring in select cities.
A prototype version of the app using an autonomous Bolt would allow Lyft users to opt in or out of the autonomous program when hailing a Lyft vehicle. Matthiesen said the company is continuing to work on how the vehicle communicates with the occupants to ensure everyone is in the vehicle, it’s the right vehicle and the destination is correct.
“These are things that we’re going to have to think about in terms of solving that aren’t going to be solved by just an app,” he said. “And that’s where the partnership with GM, as we go through this, it’s not just about the user experiences on the app, but in the car as well.”
Lyft, Matthiesen said, is working on its network and how to integrate the fleet so it’s “familiar” to its users, while GM is focusing on the vehicles and autonomous technologies.
“Without some partner, we really wouldn’t be focusing on this right now,” he said. “I really like the GM partnership because what they focus on and what we focus are completely two different aspects of yet two pieces of the much larger problem.”
Sam Abuelsamid of Forbes explained what the future of driverless cars could be:
A transportation outlook white paper recently published by Navigant Research projects that by 2050, most urban areas will have at least begun replacing human driven vehicles with this type of mobility-on-demand service. As of 2015, more than 50 percent of the world’s population lived in cities and current demographic projections are that by 2030 more than two-thirds of the expected population of more than nine billion will live in cities. On-demand autonomous systems will eliminate much of the need for parking spaces and enable centralized charging of electric vehicles.
This type of urban, autonomous mobility-as-a-service model would also address a number of other problems. Limiting these urban areas to autonomous vehicles would eliminate the problem of interactions with human-driven vehicles and since speeds are lower the effect of any accidents that do happen will be reduced. Due to the high cost of parking a vehicle in urban areas, these services would also make affordable mobility accessible to more people. These services would also provide mobility to those who can’t drive due to age or physical abilities.
Even fuel cell vehicles could be viable in such an environment because the autonomous vehicles operated by a few services such as Lyft, or Uber or their successors could be quickly refueled with only a few hydrogen filling stations per city. Former GM R&D chief Larry Burns described just such a scenario at the recent SAE World Congress in Detroit.
If these autonomous mobility-on-demand services do transpire over the long-term, the automakers that survive the transition will likely need to be active investors or owners of these services. This is why many OEMs including Ford, Daimler and BMW are directly involved in testing car sharing and ride-hailing systems.