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Ford’s partnership with Lyft finally gives it a clear plan for self-driving cars

Lyft users will eventually be able to hail a Ford self-driving car.

Ford self-driving car
Ford self-driving car

Welcome to the wild west of self-driving, where everybody is competing with everyone and simultaneously working with them. In an unsurprising turn of events, Ford and Lyft became the latest alliance in an increasingly muddled network of self-driving alliances.

Eventually — no one is saying when — Lyft users will be able to hail self-driving Ford vehicles from the app.

That’s as much as we know about the terms of this relationship. Few companies have given many details — if they themselves have figured it out — on how they will divide profits or who will own the cars.

A chart showing that Lyft has more self-driving partnerships than Uber.

It’s an obvious move for both companies but perhaps a more necessary one for Ford.

Lyft has already partnered with five other companies — automakers like GM and Jaguar as well as self-driving software developers — and plans to build out its own self-driving system. Until now, Ford hasn’t had a clear business plan for how to get people in its self-driving cars beyond saying it will work with partners.

Who isn’t?

Lyft, last valued at $7.5 billion, has made its strategy clear: It wants to be the network of choice for consumers of self-driving cars while also working to develop its own self-driving system so it isn’t beholden to the timeline of its partners. (Because being first to market with a network of self-driving cars has its technological and financial benefits!)

Ford’s strategy was less clear — a deficiency that some say led to the departure of its former CEO Mark Fields. Under Fields, sources say the company was slow to move on its advanced technology efforts. At the end of 2015, Fields bungled a deal with Google to work on self-driving cars, according to Automotive News.

Moreover, most people in the industry agree that consumers won’t be buying self-driving cars, they’ll be using them in either a ride-hailing or car-sharing network. Without a deal with Google’s self-driving arm, now called Waymo, Ford was left to build the autonomous brain in-house with an unestablished path to market.

Eventually, the company acquired on-demand shuttle service Chariot in September 2016 and then bought a majority stake in self-driving startup Argo.AI for $1 billion.

Still, while the Chariot acquisition provided one version of what the automaker’s path to market for self-driving cars could be, there was little chance that it would be able to sustain the company’s self-driving business on its own. (The company contends it will also continue to operate its traditional business of building and selling cars to people.)

Enter Lyft.

Now Ford is working with Lyft alongside some of its major competitors like General Motors and Jaguar and other companies that pose a threat to its autonomous efforts like Alphabet’s Waymo, nuTonomy and Drive.AI.

With Uber working quietly on its technology as it endures the attention on its legal battle with Alphabet, Lyft has scooped up a series of major partners. These partners not only give Lyft a better chance of rolling out driverless cars first, they give consumers more options.

That’s not to say that these companies couldn’t also eventually work with Uber — in fact some of them, like GM’s Cruise and Alphabet’s Waymo, are working on their own ride-hail networks. (Uber previously approached Ford and other automakers for a partnership but nothing came of it at the time.)

But Lyft is undoubtedly making more progress publicly on creating a robust network of self-driving cars.

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