Ride-hailing firm Lyft is taking the future of self-driving cars very seriously – maybe even more seriously than arch-competitor Uber and other companies testing the autonomous systems.
John Zimmer, Lyft’s cofounder and president, expects that most of the company’s rides will come from autonomous vehicles within five years. Zimmer shared his perspectives in an exclusive internet with Time.
Lyft has been testing out self-driving Chevy Bolts in Phoenix with $500 million investor, General Motors. The ride-hailing company expects to see Lyft and Uber play a vital role in how self-driving cars will be used. Zimmer doesn’t see consumers trading their cars for self-driving cars as much as consumers paying for trips in self-driving cars that they don’t own.
This will set the pace for car ownership of cars to “all but end” in major U.S. cities within 10 years, Zimmer said.
Zimmer’s comments were made just days after Uber began adding riders to its self-driving vehicle test runs in Philadelphia. Uber expects robotics will soon replace human drivers in vehicles, and wants to increase its profit margins by removing its highest operating cost. Whatever the motives, it is the first company to make self-driving car rides available to the public.
Another advantage that ride-hailing companies have over automakers and suppliers is the trip data they’ve been collecting. A certain percentage of Lyft rides can be managed by self-driving cars, as Lyft already knows where the trip will start and end. Tapping into that data also has shown Lyft where to focus their efforts, like focusing on detailed street mapping to make routing more efficient and reduce miles driven on trips, he said.
“We know in what order autonomous technology should be built, such that it covers more and more of those trip types,” Zimmer said.
The business model may be changing for companies like Lyft and Uber. Zimmer imagines a time in the near future when more consumers get rid of their cars and instead buy a subscription plan for self-driving service from a ride-hailing company, something like a cell-phone plan.
Customers could be tapping into the Lyft network, as they would for using their smartphone. Lyft could be similar to the phone carrier running the network. Partners like GM and Cruise, a self-driving startup company GM acquired after Lyft, could provide the other two key components – hardware and operating system.
GM, Lyft, and Cruise have devoted hundreds of employees to working on the Arizona project. GM and Cruise are focusing on applying sensors and algorithms while Lyft has been working on problem solving for users. Issues that come up include how to best connect users with self-driving cars, and how to personalize the ride to their own tastes and needs – such as temperature, music, lighting, and routes.
Zimmer declined to state whether Lyft will work exclusively with GM and on hitting its five-year targets. He’s also not clear on how many self-driving cars will be needed to transport customers in five years.
The statistics are impressing Zimmer, with two of them being Americans spending two trillion dollars on car ownership and that these cars are being used only four percent of the time. Lyft, like Uber, is also seeing consumers taking ride-hailing trips very seriously in the past year. As of August 2016, Lyft reported doing 14.6 million rides per month, triple their volume one year before.
Zimmer is also enthusiastic about the role ride-hailing firms and ridesharing trips will play in decongesting crowded urban settings. Self-driving cars will play a big part in car traffic reducing, along with the need for as much parking space as cities currently utilize.
“If you optimize and eliminate traffic, all of a sudden, the circle around what is valuable near a city expands,” Zimmer said.
The Lyft cofounder sees his company playing a role in policy debates on how cities could be redesigned for better quality of life. Arguing against parking garages makes sense for Lyft, he said, as its benefits the city and sends more business to Lyft.