Lyft’s Vision: An Autonomous Fleet, And the End of Private Car Ownership

The Washington Post

Five years from now, you could hail a Lyft from your smartphone and — more likely than not — be picked up in a self-driving car. In a decade, private car ownership will have neared its end in the country’s biggest cities.

That’s the vision Lyft lays out in “The Road Ahead”, the company’s 10-year plan published on Medium this week. Beyond autonomous driving, the vision calls for Lyft’s service to operate on a subscription-based model.

“It’s been advertised for decades that the car equals freedom; it’s so American and such a part of our identity,” Lyft co-founder and President John Zimmer, who wrote the essay, said in an interview with The Post. “And I think the values of whether it’s exploration or freedom are still super-exciting, but the reality of car ownership is not. There’s a huge opportunity to actually deliver those true concepts of freedom through transportation.”

Lyft did not have a timeline for the rollout of its plans or specify how its initiatives would affect passenger service in the immediate future.

Zimmer did, however, say that he expects the company’s share of drivers to increase as the service grows in the coming years. Then would begin a transition period, what Lyft calls a “hybrid” of autonomous and human-driven vehicles. Eventually, Zimmer said, “we would just stop adding new drivers.”

Earlier this year, General Motors announced a $500 million investment in Lyft, in part to build an autonomous vehicle network. Lyft is currently testing self-driving cars in Phoenix and San Francisco, but they aren’t taking passengers yet.

Lyft’s announcement came days after rival service Uber debuted its first self-driving cars for passengers in Pittsburgh. And Ford invited journalists to Michigan this week to test its self-driving cars, which are expected to be available to the ride-share market by 2021, according to The Verge.

In the post, Zimmer decries the world left behind by our solo driving culture and penchant for car ownership, saying:

Next time you walk outside, pay really close attention to the space around you. Look at how much land is devoted to cars — and nothing else. How much space parked cars take up lining both sides of the street, and how much of our cities go unused covered by parking lots.

Zimmer says a world that ditches car ownership can be more sustainable and less congested. Parking lots can morph into green spaces and parks. Streets can shrink and sidewalks can widen, he says.

“That’s a world built around people, not cars,” he says in his post.

In the interview Monday morning, Zimmer expanded on his vision of the fleet. Autonomous cars could be geared toward hospitality or utility — or whatever service a passenger might need.

“On your way to work, you might want an ability to be online and catch up on your emails, you might want to take a nap. We’ll have experiences customized to the different use cases,” he said.

For both Uber and Lyft, the move toward autonomous vehicles comes as their economic models, largely reliant on capital from investors, face tough challenges and scrutiny. Uber posted quarterly losses totaling $1.2 billion in the first half of 2016, according to Bloomberg. And recent news reports highlight that Lyft is mulling a sale.

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