Self-driving Lyft cars are headed to San Francisco

The ride-hailing company partners with Drive.ai for a rollout of autonomous vehicles in the Bay Area.

Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
Dara Kerr
3 min read

This self-driving Lyft car will be hitting Bay Area roads soon.


Order a Lyft in San Francisco and you may soon be able to catch a ride in a self-driving car. The ride-hailing company said Thursday it's partnered with autonomous vehicle software company Drive.ai to bring self-driving cars to the city's streets.

"Pilot programs like this are vital to build public awareness and familiarity with autonomous vehicle technology," Sameep Tandon, CEO of Drive.ai, said in a statement. "Together, we can take the next step in autonomous vehicles, from testing to deployment in real, urban environments."

Lyft is a tad late to the self-driving game. Its rival Uber has been working on its own self-driving cars for the last two years (which included a botched rollout of the vehicles to passengers in San Francisco in December). Other technology and auto industry giants, like Google, Apple, Tesla, Ford, Honda and BMW, have also launched autonomous vehicle projects of their own.

Watch this: Lyft offers free rides in its self-driving cars

Even though Lyft President John Zimmer pronounced last year that self-driving cars are the future of transportation, the company hadn't yet started working on its own software. Up until a couple of months ago, Lyft had only announced a handful of partnerships with self-driving companies, like Nutonomy, General Motors and Waymo, the self-driving car unit of Google's parent company Alphabet.

But in July, the ride-hailing company said it was starting to work on its own autonomous vehicle software and hardware. As part of this endeavor, Lyft also said it was working on opening a new Silicon Valley engineering facility dedicated to autonomous vehicle development.

It won't be building its own cars from scratch, a process that can cost billions of dollars. Instead, it will create the hardware and software to pilot self-driving cars that can be put onto its network, which rolls out 1 million rides a day. Through this system, Lyft will be able to partner with automakers or other self-driving outfits, like Drive.ai.

"Lyft's strategy to invest in driverless cars in the Bay Area is a leading indicator of self-driving car adoption overall," said Timothy Carone, autonomous systems expert and University of Notre Dame professor. "Will people use driverless cars? Yes, in the short term as a novelty. Is it a sustainable model? Probably." 

Drive.ai's motto is it's "building the brain of self-driving vehicles." Its software is fairly unique in the autonomous vehicle world -- it's been working on creating retrofit kits that can be transform normal cars into self-driving models. Lyft didn't get into specifics in Thursday's announcement, so it's unclear if these kits will be used with Lyft vehicles.

All of the self-driving cars on the Lyft platform will come with a trained safety driver. And, according to a Lyft spokeswoman, "Lyft will invite passengers to participate in the public trial on a variety of roads in the Bay Area."

Lyft doesn't have a permit from the California Department of Motor Vehicles to test self-driving cars on the state's roadways, but Drive.ai does. It's currently permitted for six cars and 12 drivers, according to the DMV.

As for when passengers will be able to catch a ride in one of these cars? Lyft only said it'll happen "soon."

First published Sept. 7, 6:00 a.m. PT.
Update, 9:28 a.m. PT: Adds comment from autonomous systems expert and University of Notre Dame professor Timothy Carone.

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