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Lyft teams up with Ford to bring robotaxis to select U.S. cities

July 21, 2021, 6:14 PM UTC

Denizens of Miami looking to hail a ride with Lyft should soon keep their eyes peeled for an oddly shaped Ford Motor car pulling up to collect them.

Chances are it will be their first trip ever in an actual robotaxi. 

The Uber rival said on Wednesday it teamed up with Ford and the Detroit carmaker’s autonomous driving affiliate, Argo AI, to begin offering the technology to consumers in Florida’s largest city before the year is out. Argo has been testing its self-driving software in Miami since 2018.

The Ford vehicles are the first in a plan by Lyft to scale up commercial operation of robotaxis with a fleet of at least 1,000 cars deployed across multiple cities over the next five years, according to the company.

“This collaboration marks the first time all the pieces of the autonomous vehicle puzzle have come together this way,” Lyft cofounder and CEO Logan Green said in a joint statement. “Each company brings the scale, knowledge, and capability in their area of expertise that is necessary to make autonomous ride-hailing a business reality.”

The cars will be equipped with bulky, high-precision lasers on the roof, which gives them their unique look. Called lidar, they continuously scan the surroundings around them to detect people and objects, while a full software stack analyzes the constantly changing environment and calculates the appropriate path to take. 

Lyft Ford self-driving cars
The self-driving cars will use roof-mounted lidar to see obstacles.
Courtesy: Ford

Passengers won’t necessarily be able to tell a computer is steering the vehicle, however, as there will be safety drivers present behind the wheel to supervise and intervene in the event of an emergency.

Argo will gain access to anonymized service and fleet data from Lyft to improve its software, while the ride-hailing company acquires a 2.5% stake in exchange, joining Argo’s controlling shareholders Ford and Volkswagen Group. 

Ever since the U.S. Defense Department’s DARPA division sponsored the first grand challenge in 2004, artificial intelligence researchers and robotics engineers have been hard at work developing self-driving vehicles. 

Tesla CEO Elon Musk famously predicted in April 2019 the very next year his company would crack the code that would allow 1 million cars equipped with his third-generation self-driving hardware to instantly be turned into robotaxis via an over-the-air software update. 

Lyft self driving cars
Courtesy: Ford

No more euphoria

While Musk has made remarkable strides in improving the technology, rolling out a beta version that relies solely on cameras to navigate, it is still at a state that requires constant human supervision, because Tesla warns it “may do the wrong thing at the worst time.”

After initial euphoria surrounded the technology only five years ago, the fatal accident surrounding an Uber developmental prototype led to a sober reassessment of the risks for most companies.

Thus far, Alphabet’s self-driving subsidiary Waymo has stuck to one small fleet in Phoenix. Meanwhile, Volkswagen plans to use Argo technology to launch a robotaxi fleet in Germany, where they are now legal, but not before 2025. 

The core problem facing companies like Argo, Waymo, and Cruise, backed by General Motors, is how to scale their operations. The technology costs billions to develop; the cars themselves are far too expensive for purchase; and they are typically confined to areas extensively mapped all the way down to the tiniest detail.

Only Musk claims he can achieve the same degree of safety at an additional cost to the customer of just $10,000 by forgoing the use of expensive sensors like lidar and radar.  

Currently Ford, Argo, and Lyft are confident enough to predict the launch of a second robotaxi fleet next year already in Austin. The Texas capital is coincidentally home to Tesla’s fourth assembly plant, due to start producing Model Y units in the coming months.

“Argo and Ford are currently piloting, mapping, and preparing for commercial operations of autonomous vehicles in more cities than any other AV collaboration,” said Ford exec Scott Griffith, head of the carmaker’s Autonomous Vehicles & Mobility Businesses. “This new agreement is a crucial step toward full commercial operations.”

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