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Lyft wants more leverage in the self-driving ecosystem so it’s building its own tech

The company will be offering automakers a hardware and software suite that enables self-driving.

Lyft Amp Kelly Sullivan/Getty Images for Lyft

It’s early days for the self-driving industry and yet the network of alliances among companies in the space is already incredibly complex. Now, it’s only going to get more complicated as Lyft begins to expand its role in the driverless ecosystem.

Lyft has announced it’s starting to develop a hardware and software kit that will enable self-driving cars. The company already works with self-driving tech companies, like Waymo or nuTonomy, which are expected to plug their tech into Lyft’s network of cars.

Lyft will continue to operate the network, but this move means it will also be competing, to some degree, with its own partners. That raises questions for the future of this complex ecosystem, which in the case of Lyft also includes automakers like Jaguar.

The idea is that people will eventually be able to hail a self-driving Jaguar using the Lyft app.

Lyft’s new initiative includes building software for mapping and computer vision algorithms, which can help the car know where to go and understand what it’s seeing. That technology stack will include off-the-shelf hardware, like cameras and radars, from other companies.

But why would Lyft, a company that was well positioned to serve as an agnostic on-demand platform for a series of automakers and tech companies, decide to take on the cost and burden of building out its own tech?

Part of it may have to do with trying to become more appealing for current and future automaker partners (or maybe even a potential buyer). Other automakers without the technology could find Lyft more appealing either as an acquisition target or a partner if it owns more of its technology — particularly since Lyft has a built-in path to market.

Lyft also appears to be willing to piecemeal out some of the components of its kits, so if one automaker just needs better maps it can use Lyft’s maps, as one example. Other partners could simply choose to plug their self-driving cars into the network without using any of Lyft’s technology.

Second, the company appears to be hedging its bets on its partnerships by owning more of the self-driving value chain. The autonomous ecosystem consists of three primary parts: The car, the tech and the path to market. Without the tech, Lyft just served as the path to market.

It’s not necessarily a bad position to be in. The company is working on ways to own more of the user experience beyond hailing the cars. That includes working on features within the app and eventually on in-car tablets that will walk customers through what the self-driving car is seeing, where it’s going and why it does specific things. This way, customers continue to interact with Lyft’s brand throughout the ride.

The company’s pitch to partners is its geographic scale and that it offers the added benefit of already having a pool of drivers on its network. This is key to its value proposition, the company’s chief strategy officer Raj Kapoor said during a press briefing, because automakers or tech companies don’t have to worry about not meeting rider demand as they incrementally deploy self-driving cars into the network.

But Lyft seems to not want to take any chances by being beholden to one company or its timeline for deployment. Autonomy could be a huge boon to the company’s business down the line and without it, its marketshare could be at risk.

Other players in the space appear to be jockeying for position as well. Alphabet’s Waymo has previously hinted at working on its own ride-sharing service.

So to ensure that Lyft maintains some of its power in a situation where one partner creates a competing service, pulls out of the network or takes longer than expected to build the technology, the company is diving into the ever-crowded driverless tech space head first.

“[Self-driving cars] are going to be critical to our longer-term existence,” the company’s head of product Taggart Matthiesen told Recode. “That makes it critical that we work [on] and have access to this technology longer term.”

There’s a lot of competition in building autonomous technology. That makes Lyft’s value proposition look a lot like its partners: Waymo and nuTonomy.

By contrast, Alphabet’s self-driving car division, Waymo, is building some of its own hardware, like the laser-based radars called lidar, in a bid to supply carmakers and other self-driving technology companies. Nevertheless, each of these companies — while they’re working together — are also now competing for the same business relationships with carmakers.

Matthiesen told Recode that the company has been transparent with its self-driving tech partners Waymo and nuTonomy about this since the beginning. NuTonomy co-founder Karl Iagnemma echoed that in a statement saying that he’s excited about the work the company is doing with Lyft.

“The AV ecosystem is constantly evolving and no single winner will be crowned,” Iagnemma said. “Partnerships remain critical to nuTonomy's success, and our aim is to work with groups with whom we share strategic aims and core values. These are partners that are transparent, innovative, and are focused on putting autonomous fleets on the road.”

Eventually, what we’ll see — at least based on today’s development — is a network wherein Waymo, nuTonomy, GM’s Cruise or Lyft-powered cars will drive alongside each other on the Lyft platform.

Building out a self-driving kit in-house wasn’t the initial plan for the $7.5 billion company. But Matthiesen said Lyft has been working on this new version of its autonomous ambitions for the better part of the last year and a half.

It’s not exactly an easy or inexpensive endeavor, however. Uber has been working on driverless tech since at least 2015. As of earlier this year, the company’s cars had to be taken over by a human driver once every .8 miles, according to documents Recode first obtained.

Lyft — which Matthiesen said wants to make sure people know they’re serious about this — is also building out a Palo Alto site where he and the company’s vice president of engineering Luc Vincent will lead a team of self-driving engineers.


This article originally appeared on Recode.net.