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Why Putting Robotaxis on the Lyft Network Makes Sense

Argo AI recently announced that it will put autonomous Ford Escape Hybrids test vehicles on the Lyft ride-hail platform later this year. Why? Because deploying autonomous vehicles (or “AVs”) isn’t solely about “solving” a technology problem or building cars. It’s a business to be built, and that means connecting supply with demand.

Invention becomes innovation when it can be delivered at scale. A new flavor ≠ a billion dollar ice cream business. You need the ingredients, a factory, a lot of freezers, freezer trucks, stores with freezers…and a lot of people filling their freezers with ice cream.

Seen through the lens of the mint chocolate chip ice cream I’m spilling onto my keyboard as I type this, let us count the ways the Argo AI/Ford/Lyft partnership is more than the sum of its parts.

Go Where The Customers Are

Argo is already testing in cities like Miami and Austin. Both were carefully selected based on geography, climate, complexity and regulatory environment.

But what do people often forget about? Demand. Even if all other factors are perfect, you can’t build a business without demand.

Where are the ride-hail customers? They’re already on platforms like Lyft. Why reinvent the wheel? Even companies like Apple don’t do manufacturing, for the same reason Argo leaves that to experts like Ford and Volkswagen. Focus matters, and one should always focus on one’s strengths. The ride-hail market is littered with companies that tried to go toe to toe with Lyft and Uber. Ride-hail, like almost all transportation sectors, is winners-take-most, and Lyft is one of those winners.

But Lyft has more to offer than just passengers, and Argo has more to offer than just making vehicles autonomous.

Give Customers Options They Never Had Before

There’s a famous saying in Hollywood: offer people something great they’ve never seen before, then do it again. The same is true of transportation options, and precisely what Argo brings to the table.

By adding AVs to the Lyft platform, the universe of existing customers in Miami will see a choice they’ve never had before. The addition of AVs will supplement the menu of human-driven Lyft options to create a mixed fleet.

Hybrid models like this are already popular in retail: 70% of people prefer a hybrid store that lets you choose between autonomous checkout and a human being.

It all depends on your preference. Want more privacy? Order a self-driving Lyft. Need help with bags or luggage, or just getting into and out of your ride? Order a car with a driver, just like you did before.

Feathering AVs Into The Real World

A mixed fleet makes sense for another reason: AVs aren’t going to magically “work” everywhere, anytime soon. AVs operate within what Argo AI calls a geonet, which is the sum of driveable streets on which the fleet has been validated for safe operation.

If your ride starts or ends outside the geonet, your Lyft will be human-driven. Inside the geonet? Your call. Your choice. As the AVs grow in capability and as geonets expand, so will your choices across more neighborhoods and cities.

Adding AVs to Lyft makes sense for another reason: less friction = better. No one wants to open multiple apps to see all their choices. I already have that problem with all my different movie streaming services. Add AVs to Lyft, and riders have a single point of entry to all their ride-hail choices. A mixed fleet simultaneously adds choice and reduces friction, which is what we all want.

But wait, there’s more. Have you tried to use ride-hail lately? I don’t know about you, but here in Miami ETA times can really spike weekend nights. And whenever I need to go to the airport. Or to dinner. Or when I need to go to work and I can’t drive because I broke my foot, like I did last week.

Demand, meet supply: AVs can help fill that gap.

Turn Big Data Into Useful Information

The phrase big data makes my eyes glaze over, because more data isn’t necessarily good data, or more importantly, relevant.

But Lyft has exactly the local data Argo needs, which will help accomplish three key goals in the AV sector for the first time:

  1. Optimize routing for efficiency
  2. Optimize routing for safety
  3. Help build an AV safety case on a neighborhood level

Everyone wants to go from A to B efficiently and safely, but that last one may be the biggest leap forward. So far it’s been difficult to make the case that the presence of AVs can make a neighborhood safer. Why? Because decades of national or state-level public crash reporting just isn’t detailed enough on a local level for an apples-to-apples comparison.

If you want to measure the safety of AVs in Miami, what happens throughout the rest of Florida or even the country isn’t relevant. You need to compare them to what goes on in Miami, street-by-street, block-by-block. Using local safety data from Lyft allows us to measure AV driving performance against that of local human drivers.

This is essential, because as Argo AI CEO Bryan Salesky told The Verge, “the customer is actually the bike that’s riding next to us, the pedestrian that’s crossing in front of the vehicle. The customer is really the environment around us in addition to whatever work the vehicle is doing at the time. It all matters, for a community to be okay with having self-driving cars.”

I live in Miami. I ride my bicycle on Miami Beach on weekends. I’m about to buy my baby angel Coco a bicycle for her 3rd birthday. I want to know that she’s safer once AVs are deployed, and the information developed through Argo’s partnership with Lyft will help make it possible to prove it.

The Future of AV Deployment

AVs won’t become ubiquitous overnight, but big things have small beginnings. That starts with gluing together the technology, cars and customers in Miami and Austin, then building trust on a local level. That’s hard to do from scratch, but if one wants to scale, people need to be able to see and try AVs for themselves. And that’s why it makes sense for Argo AI to partner with Lyft.

Alex Roy loves mint chocolate chip ice cream. He is also the Director of Special Operations at Argo AI, host of the No Parking & Autonocast podcasts, editor-at-large at The Drive, founder of the Human Driving Association, author of The Driver, and Producer of APEX: The Secret Race Across America. He held the Cannonball Run record from 2006-2013. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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