WASHINGTON — Lyft is getting bolder in the wake of Uber’s unraveling.
The ride-sharing service announced Friday it will develop the hardware and software to power its own self-driving vehicles, a dramatic departure in strategy.
Previously, Lyft pursued partnerships with companies building self-driving car technology, including Google’s Waymo division, General Motors and nuTonomy.
It’s typically extremely expensive to develop self-driving vehicles because test fleets are needed, as well as specialized engineers who command huge salaries.
But now Lyft is building an open platform for self-driving vehicles and plans to maintain existing partnerships. For example, a customer using the Lyft app would have the option to get an autonomous ride from either the company itself or one of its partners.
Lyft sees developing self-driving technology as core to its business. It’s opening a new facility in Palo Alto, California to house its team and expects several hundred people to work there by the end of 2018.
“You can’t just leave [self-driving technology] in the hands of others, especially when you have talent and assets that could actually help,” Raj Kapoor, chief strategy officer at Lyft, told reporters in a briefing Thursday. “It’s almost an injustice if we don’t do it.”
Lyft is entering the self-driving tech race years after other major players. Waymo’s vehicles have more than three million autonomous miles under their belts. Lyft has yet to receive a permit from the California DMV to test autonomous vehicles in the state.
But the company believes its vehicle fleet and advances in artificial intelligence will allow it to quickly rally.
By harnessing deep learning — a powerful type of AI, which wasn’t a proven technology when competitors first pursued autonomous driving — Lyft thinks it can catch up.
It’s also banking on its Express Drive program — which allows drivers to rent Lyft vehicles — as a secret weapon. It plans to outfit these vehicles with cameras and sensors to collect data that will ultimately train its self-driving cars.
Tesla is using a similar strategy, which some experts consider a strong competitive advantage.
The self-driving industry points to the technology as a way to curtail how many people (1.25 million) are killed on roads worldwide each year. It also makes good business sense: Self-driving rides are expected to cost less than car ownership or traditional ridesharing. That protects Lyft from being disrupted by companies offering cheaper rides than what they might cost with a human driver.
This concern triggered Uber to heavily invest in self-driving technology.
Now that Uber’s top executives have exited and its self-driving team is embroiled in a lawsuit from Waymo, Lyft is moving full-speed ahead to broaden its ambitions.