Lyft, NuTonomy Team Up on Self-Driving Cars as Alliances Proliferate

Xconomy Boston — 

As companies rev up their work on self-driving vehicles, they’re increasingly forming alliances with each other to help deliver on the technology’s potential—and fend off competitors.

The latest example is a partnership announced Tuesday between Lyft, the San Francisco-based ride-hailing app company, and NuTonomy, a Boston-based developer of software for driverless vehicles. The research and development pact will focus on understanding and perfecting the “end-to-end experience” of autonomous vehicle passengers, according to a press release. That means ensuring comfort and safety throughout all aspects of a ride in an autonomous vehicle—including booking the trip, enhancing the performance of the driving system, and improving how it communicates with the rider.

There’s no money changing hands in the deal, Recode reported. If things go well, the plan is for Lyft users to be able to hail rides from “thousands” of self-driving vehicles powered by NuTonomy’s technology, starting in Boston, according to Recode. A launch date for the Boston service hasn’t been set, and it would require city approval, the Boston Globe reported.

The research will take place in Boston, where NuTonomy has been testing its software in electric vehicles made by Renault since the beginning of the year. (A NuTonomy engineer rides in the vehicle to track performance and take the wheel if necessary.) NuTonomy has also been testing its technology in Singapore since last August. Next year, it intends to launch an on-demand, mobile app-enabled ride service in Singapore using self-driving vehicles.

NuTonomy’s other partners include Grab, whose app enables people in Southeast Asia to hail rides from taxis, private cars, and motorbikes; and Groupe PSA, a French carmaker whose brands include Peugeot. NuTonomy, founded by MIT researchers Karl Iagnemma and Emilio Frazzoli, raised a $16 million Series A funding round last year.

Lyft, meanwhile, has also joined forces with GM, which invested $500 million in Lyft and acquired autonomous vehicle technology maker Cruise Automation for about $1 billion; and Waymo, the self-driving vehicle firm owned by Google parent company Alphabet.

Not to be outdone, Ford announced in February it’s investing $1 billion over five years in Argo AI, which will work on software to run Ford’s autonomous vehicles.

Lyft rival Uber reportedly tried to partner with electric vehicle maker Tesla on self-driving cars, but was turned down. Uber has partnerships with Volvo, Daimler, and Ford. The ride-hailing giant is also being sued by Waymo for allegedly using Google trade secrets to develop its self-driving car technology. Last week, Uber fired Anthony Levandowski—the former Google engineer at the center of the lawsuit—because he reportedly failed to meet a company deadline to deliver information relevant to the court case.

All of these partnerships illustrate that one company can’t tackle all the challenges of autonomous vehicles by itself, from developing the vehicles’ software to manufacturing the vehicles (and the sensors and other necessary equipment), to running ride-hailing services.

Some of the players seem to be hedging their bets by forging ties with multiple partners handling the same piece of the autonomous vehicle puzzle. That could complicate relationships. But it’s also probably a smart move, given how many hurdles—technological, financialpolitical, psychological—must be overcome before self-driving vehicles can gain widespread adoption (if that’s indeed where things are headed).

In the next few years, we’ll see which of these current partnerships pan out, and who emerges as the big winner (or winners) in this sector.

[In the above photo, an electric vehicle equipped with NuTonomy’s self-driving technology is parked outside the Boston Public Library. Photo downloaded from the press kit on NuTonomy’s website.]