Self-Driving Lyfts Hit the Track at a California Test Site

Lyft is putting self-driving cars on the road at a former naval weapons station near San Francisco as the ride-hailing company develops technology to compete with Uber, its fast-moving rival.

Lyft has begun vehicle testing at GoMentum Station, a 5,000-acre facility in Concord, Calif., where Toyota, Acura, component maker Sumitomo Electric and others have also done research. GoMentum Station has more than 20 miles of paved roads designed to simulate common driving situations, including tunnels, overpasses and an urban grid.

Lyft said the facility gives it a secure site to develop new iterations of self-driving systems and get autonomous cars on the road more quickly. Last year, the company opened a development center in nearby Palo Alto and said 10% of its engineers were working on self-driving technology.

Uber is testing its own self-driving cars in several cities, including San Francisco, and announced an autonomous truck pilot in Arizona this week.

While Uber has made headlines with aggressive moves to develop its own technology, including the 2015 acquisition of trucking startup Otto that led to a legal battle with Waymo, Lyft has taken a different approach.

Last year it introduced what it called an open self-driving platform and invited partners to use it.

The idea is that companies building self-driving cars can learn from Lyft’s tens of millions of miles of daily driving experience, gaining insights into things like traffic patterns and eventually three-dimensional map data. Lyft, in turn, could bring the cars into its ride-hailing fleet. Automakers including General Motors, Ford and Jaguar have partnered with the company.

Consumers can sign up on Lyft’s website to get free rides in autonomous cars, though Lyft doesn’t saying when. Meanwhile, Waymo, which also announced a partnership with Lyft last year, is already providing rides in driverless minivans in Arizona and plans to launch a commercial service there this year. Uber has said it will put some self-driving cars on the road for paying customers around the middle of next year.

Lyft calls autonomous driving a core part of its mission but expects to always operate a hybrid fleet. Driverless cars will provide rides where they can, while customers who need another level of service or have to go places where driverless cars can’t will get a driver, Lyft vice president of Engineering Luc Vincent wrote last year.

GoMentum Station, about 30 miles northeast of San Francisco, is a public-private partnership launched by the Contra Costa Transportation Authority, a county agency. CCTA calls it the nation’s largest secure testing facility for autonomous and connected vehicle technology.

Closed-track testing offers a way around traffic and legal limits on public roads. Waymo has tested self-driving cars at another former military facility about 100 miles south of Concord in California’s Central Valley.

Real-world driving and computer simulations are also helping developers tune driving systems. GM Cruise has said testing on busy San Francisco streets exposed its cars to 46 times more challenging learning situations than in other areas. Waymo says it’s driven 5 million miles on real roads since 2009 and covered 2.7 billion miles in simulations in 2017.

— Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.

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