The vision of autonomous driving appears to be a hot topic these days. At the beginning, there was an arms race in terms of who builds the first self-driving car. Now it seems it is transforming into ideas that could change urban transportation on a world scale. It was only recently that Tesla launched their newest Autopilot version with “superhuman” detection abilities and only last week, Uber pitched in with its autonomous test rides in Pittsburgh.
On the other hand, Lyft — another ridesharing service — is ambitious enough to frame autonomous driving in to a near-future time period. Lyft’s co-founder and President, John Zimmer, envisions a future that would see most of the rides on Lyft’s network of cars handled autonomously by 2021. He goes even further than that and anticipates that by 2025, personal car ownership, specifically in U.S. urban areas, will essentially be a thing of the past as denizens opt to use shared vehicle networks.
“You have cities that are mistakenly designed for cars, that are majority paved. I think about things in terms of occupancy. If you think about ground transportation, 96 percent of the time the car is parked, that’s like a horrible, horrible business. Americans spend more money on cars than they do on food, and the thing is parked 96 percent of the time and it takes up a large amount of city infrastructure. [sic]” argues Zimmer.
Zimmer hasn’t exactly clarified how his company will manage all that in such a short time span, but he believes the driverless tech will gradually develop enough to make the transition possible. Fixed-route autonomy should be around as early as 2017, while low-speed all around town (under 25MPH) autonomy is expected to start as soon as 2018.
Lyft seems to be really confident in building their fleet of autonomous cars. They consider their collaboration with General Motors (GM) — who owns a 10 percent stake in Lyft — to be a strong supporting pillar in pushing their vision.
Autonomous ridesharing is really just the tip of the iceberg in their grand plan of providing the ultimate driving experience. Lyft presented a future mileage-based subscription model which would offer superior services — “tailored to customer needs” — as opposed to owning a car.
“Let’s imagine you sign up for – just like you have with Spotify or Netflix – a monthly subscription to Lyft, you’re going to have a choice between five to ten different experiences. Let’s say you want the car or the hotel on wheels that allows you to do writing on the way to work, or you want to take a nap and there’s a sleeper car, or you’re with a bunch of friends and it’s kind of like a bar on wheels. With the Lyft plan you’ll be able to access those five or ten different experiences.” explains Zimmer.
While he’s excited about the potential possible to address those issues when you transition to a world where vehicle ownership is not the dominant mode, and self-driving is the norm, Zimmer also isn’t under any illusions about the challenges potentially preventing his vision from becoming a reality. He says it’s “not certain” at all that we can make this happen.
In particular, as reported by Engadget, there’s the not-so-small matter of regulation. Currently, out of the 36 states Lyft operates in, most of them do not legalize autonomy just yet. Given that the country is only taking tentative steps toward legalization at the moment, there’s no guarantee the needed legal framework will be in place.
Furthermore, a lot of critique directed towards the autonomous fleet transportation network includes concern for the human drivers currently employed by Lyft and others. However, Zimmer somewhat counter-intuitively argues that the demand for human drivers for Lyft will grow rather than decrease ahead of the transition to autonomous vehicles. He says, the need for drivers will increase until the tech catches up to the point where vehicles can operate without anyone behind the wheel.
Despite all the obstacles and the business hitting bottleneck in terms of legalization of autonomy, it is no doubt ambitious enough to continue putting more effort into. With so many companies pitching in and working tirelessly to revolutionize urban transportation, it might be only a question of time.