Weekly Brief: Lyft Steals Robo-Taxi March on Waymo

Lyft hit an impressive milestone last week in Las Vegas: the ride-sharing company has now completed 55,000 trips in its robo-taxis with paying customers onboard.

The trips have been to various destinations throughout Sin City, starting at random places at random times with random passengers. In short, it’s as close as you can find to a fully-fledged commercial robo-taxi service in the world. After a year in operation, it hasn’t reported a single accident. Granted, there are a lot of caveats here.

Although the vehicles are fully autonomous, they still have a safety engineer on board at all times and neither Lyft nor Aptiv, the company behind the autonomous technology, has released how often those safety engineers have to intervene on the robo-taxi’s behalf. Also, although the service picks passengers up at random times and places, it only goes to a set number of preset destinations, so the scope and overall utility of the service, as a stand-alone operation, is limited.

None of this should diminish the accomplishment. Quietly, in the shadow of Waymo’s Phoenix operations, Lyft has assembled the largest robo-taxi service in the world. Its 30-vehicle fleet is open to anybody as long as they have the Lyft app on their phones and opt into the program. Also the company reports that passengers are happy claiming the average user rating on robo-taxi rides is 4.97 out of 5 stars and 92% of those riders say they feel safe.

It’s hard to know exactly how Waymo’s service stacks up in comparison. As of April 2019 the Waymo app is available on Android devices. Anyone can download it but it only works for users in Phoenix and, even then, you get thrown onto a waiting list. Waymo is mum on how many everyday users have been invited off the waiting list, if any. The program primarily still consists of 400 passengers from its “early rider” pilot program.

Lyft says it is thrilled with how things are going in Las Vegas. Expect that enthusiasm to translate into more robo-taxis in more cities soon. Indeed, the Las Vegas experiment represents the best preview of what robo-taxi services will look like in the near future: small programs integrated into much larger ride-sharing platforms, with safety drivers onboard and strict limitations on where the robo-taxis can go. Slowly the list of destinations will expand and, even more slowly, the safety engineers will disappear.

Alongside these small, integrated robo-taxi services, expect small packs of autonomous trucks to be integrated into larger fleets of tractor trailers moving goods across country. Waymo announced last week that it has resumed testing self-driving trucks in Phoenix, after a two-year hiatus. The technology, it says, is now in a “more advanced stage” and could be ready for some limited commercial deployments soon. Two weeks ago I reported that the US Postal Service is now piloting robo-trucks for moving mail around the country. And Daimler Trucks announced last week that it’s created a new division called the Autonomous Technology Group.

Daimler is already a leader in semi-autonomous, Level 2, big rigs and has solid pilots underway with fully self-driving trucks. The goal of its Autonomous Technology Group is to help deploy robo-trucks at scale in the US as its first market. To do so, Daimler plans to partner with customers whose businesses are a natural fit for robo-trucks and it will seek to set up the necessary operations infrastructure and network. If all goes well, robo-trucks will be cruising around highways within the coming decade, Daimler says. Ten years may not sound sexy but, given what we’ve learned in the past twelve months about deploying fully autonomous vehicles both for freight and taxis, slow change is how this game is going to shake out.


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