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Lyft is bringing another self-driving car pilot program to the Bay Area

  • The company will partner with Drive.ai.
  • Lyft already has partnerships with GM, NuTonomy, and Waymo.
  • Executives say they expect to launch "soon."
A Lyft car in San Francisco.
Getty Images
A Lyft car in San Francisco.

Lyft is partnering with yet another self-driving car startup — this time with Drive.ai in the San Francisco Bay Area — to launch a pilot program that will shuttle ride-sharing customers to their destinations in vehicles controlled by artificial intelligence, not humans.

The partnership is just the latest step in Lyft's plan to offer up its vast network of passengers and drivers to companies developing self-driving cars. Lyft already has partnerships with GM, Boston-based NuTonomy, and Waymo, the Google self-driving car project that spun out to become a business under parent company Alphabet.

Drive.ai and Lyft did not specify when this pilot program will start actively shuttling passengers in autonomous vehicles. Executives with Drive.ai and Lyft say they expect to launch "soon."

Initially, the pilot will involve a small set of passengers who will opt in to this program, Taggart Matthiesen, senior director of product of Lyft, told The Verge.He did not provide a specific number of vehicles or participants, but noted the self-driving car will have a Drive.ai safety driver behind the wheel to take over in case the artificial intelligence controlling the car fails, and of course, to meet California regulations.

Once a ride is requested, Drive.ai's software will evaluate whether or not the route is feasible, said Carol Reiley, co-founder and president of Drive.ai. This may be a route that has been pre-selected, Reiley said, adding that the company's self-driving technology can handle rainy and nighttime conditions.

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Drive.ai, which was founded by former graduate students working in Stanford University's Artificial Intelligence Lab, will use the pilot to test the limits of the self-driving car technology and further develop it so the riding experience is consistent, regardless of the conditions of route, Reiley said. A consistent and safe ride is something all companies developing self-driving car technology are chasing, with varying degrees of success.

Despite the lack of logistical details, the partnership is a milestone for the lesser-known Drive.ai, which received an autonomous vehicle testing permit from the California Department of Motor Vehicles in April 2016. This partnership — the first that Drive.ai has publicly announced — gives the startup the opportunity to potentially bring its self-driving cars to the 300 cities in 40 US states where Lyft operates.

Drive.ai uses a different approach from other companies racing to deploy autonomous vehicles. Startups generally train their self-driving vehicles with deep learning technology, a sophisticated form of artificial intelligence algorithms that allow a computer — essentially the car's brain — to learn by using a series of connected networks to identify patterns in data. Traditionally, deep learning is used to teach the car how to recognize objects, such as the ability of the car to detect a traffic light or a pedestrian. In general, the use of deep neural networks is limited to this task.

Drive.ai is applying deep learning to the entire process of self-driving, including how the autonomous car makes decisions, like how to negotiate a four-way stop safely. The deep neural network learns on its own, getting better with experience. But because there is no code for an engineer to program or evaluate, some argue it's too risky or immature to deploy for public use.

Lyft's approach lies in stark contrast to its biggest rival Uber, which has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into a research center in Pittsburgh and spent $680 million in 2016 to acquire self-driving truck startup Otto. Uber's aggressive approach has garnered plenty of headlines; it has also caused problems that now threaten to derail its plans. Uber's refusal to apply for a $150 permit to test self-driving cars in California initially led it to move the operation to Arizona, where regulations are looser. The company eventually conceded to California regulations. And it's now embroiled in a lawsuit filed by Waymo alleging that it stole trade secrets when it acquired Otto, which was started by longtime Google self-driving project engineer Anthony Levandowski.

Meanwhile, Lyft has taken a more collaborative route. The company has already locked in three partnerships (that we know of) with companies to test autonomous ride-sharing programs. It struck its first partnership in January 2016 with GM, a deal that included the automaker investing $500 million into the company. GM has a long-term vision to first test, and eventually deploy, self-driving cars within Lyft's network.

In July, Lyft went a step further and announced it was launching an open platform to give companies working on self-driving cars access to its ride-sharing network of nearly 1 million rides per day. The goal is to let companies test their tech in real-world ride-sharing scenarios.

"We're not looking to vet the technology," Matthiesen said. "We want to do this in a very agnostic way, which is why we built this open platform."