Lyft’s first self-driving car pilot is officially underway. The company is sending autonomous vehicles — developed by the startup NuTonomy — to pick up passengers in Boston’s Seaport district, which is a growing tech hub. The cars are not completely driverless, as human safety drivers will remain behind the wheel, ready to take control when needed. But it’s a big moment for Lyft, which has seen its star rise this year as its main rival Uber was beset by numerous self-inflicted scandals.
Here’s how it works: riders will randomly be paired with one of NuTonomy’s self-driving cars when they use the Lyft app in the Seaport area. NuTonomy, which spun out of MIT in 2013 and was recently purchased by automotive supplier Delphi, has been operating self-driving cars in Boston since January. The company has been testing in Boston’s Raymond L. Flynn Marine Park, a small industrial zone that doesn’t fully represent the kinds of environments a driver would encounter around the city.
“Our partnership with Lyft has two goals,” NuTonomy says in a blog post. “First, we want to let members of the public experience driverless vehicles firsthand, so they can better understand the impact this new technology will have on their lives. Second, based on feedback from pilot participants, NuTonomy’s engineers will adapt and improve our system, so that we can deliver an autonomous transportation experience that is extremely safe, efficient, and comfortable.”
NuTonomy isn’t the only self-driving company to team up with Lyft. The ride-hail company is working with Drive.ai to deploy autonomous taxis in San Francisco, and also has agreements with Ford and Alphabet’s Waymo.
Lyft is trying to catch up to the self-driving efforts of rival Uber, which is operating its own autonomous taxis in Pittsburgh and Phoenix. While Uber may be ahead, it is also mired in exponentially more problems than Lyft. The company is being sued by Waymo, which alleges the theft of many of its self-driving car secrets. And Uber’s vehicles have been involved in numerous accidents and traffic infractions, raising questions about their safety.
Lyft has won new investments and locked down key partnerships with a broad cast of tech and auto companies. And with its commitment to building its own in-house self-driving software, Lyft seems to be on its way to developing a “full stack” of technology to enable a release of self-driving taxis on its platform.