Waymo's new plan to undo Uber? Building self-driving cars for Lyft

May 15, 2017

In case you hadn't noticed, the relationship between Uber and Google spin-off, Waymo, has been tense the past few months. In February, Waymo filed suit against Uber, claiming that the ride-sharing giant has been using Waymo's proprietary technology to build self-driving cars. Worse, the engineer who allegedly stole the technology from Waymo is refusing to speak out. 

As we reported last week, the Waymo/Uber case will soon go to court, where things are likely to get very, very ugly. Now, we've learned that Waymo has plans to make the whole situation even messier, thanks to a partnership with one of Uber's biggest ride-sharing rivals, Lyft. 

Reports of the partnership were leaked to the press by two people familiar with the negotiations, which began in last summer. Precise details of the deal haven't been published, but representatives from both Lyft and Waymo have confirmed that the partnership is a go.

Good news for Lyft

Lyft has gained traction in recent months--not least because of a massive #DeleteUber campaign that began in response to (a) reports of a pervasively misogynist, homophobic work culture at Uber and (b) CEO Travis Kalanick's refusal to condemn president Trump's attempted immigration ban in a forceful way. (In-car footage of Kalanick being a jerk to one of his drivers didn't help matters.)

However, Lyft still remains well behind Uber in terms of market share. The deal with Waymo could help change that.

Most ride-sharing companies understand that self-driving tech is poised to be a game-changer in their industry. However, few of those companies have the resources to develop autonomous software and hardware on their own. 

And that's where Waymo comes in. Waymo has been working on autonomous vehicles since 2009, when it was still part of Google X and commonly called "Google's self-driving car project". Over the past eight years, Waymo has made huge strides on the hardware and software fronts, but despite those successes, the company has decided against building its own cars. 

You see where that's going? Lyft has a network of customers who make use of ride-sharing. Waymo has the technology to make ride-sharing vehicles autonomous. That's two of the three necessary puzzle pieces. 

Could the third be General Motors? 

Lyft has an ongoing partnership with GM, and the two have plans to develop large fleets of self-driving taxis in the near future. GM recently acquired Cruise Automation, which developed a self-driving platform of its own. Perhaps there's room for GM to get involved in this partnership--or at least provide cars for Lyft, which could then be equipped with Waymo's self-driving system. 

Good news for Waymo

Though Waymo doesn't have any plans to build its own self-driving cars, the company does depend on real-world driving data to improve its autonomous vehicle software. Waymo gets that data from its own fleet of vehicles, but more data sources mean that the software can learn faster.

To that end, Waymo recently partnered with Fiat Chrysler to trick out 100 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans with its self-driving software and hardware. Working with Lyft could generate exponentially more data, and exponentially greater improvements for Waymo's software.  

Bad news for Uber

For Uber to remain competitive, it has to remain ahead of the game, and that means working overtime to launch fleets of self-driving cars. 

Unfortunately, U.S. District Judge William Alsup has put a few speed bumps in Uber's path. Last week, he announced plans to shut down part of Uber's autonomous car pilot program, and he referred the Waymo/Uber lawsuit to federal investigators. Though Judge Alsup declined to force Uber's self-driving vehicles off the road entirely, the fact that he's launched a criminal investigation makes Uber's future prospects far iffier. 

In Uber's best-case scenario, investigators find no evidence of wrongdoing, and within the year, Uber's self-driving car program is operating at full speed. 

However, that vision might be a little rosy. There's evidence to suggest that the engineer at the heart of the case, Anthony Levandowski, did in fact steal some 14,000 documents from Waymo before resigning from the company in January 2016. If so, it could mean that Uber will lose one of its most talented engineers. 

And if there's evidence to show that Uber made use of Levandowski's stolen information--or worse, colluded with him to procure it--Uber could be in very, very serious trouble. 

We have no idea how things might shake out, but it's going to be very interesting to watch, that's for sure. 

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