Lyft might be pulling ahead in the battle to take your suburbs into the future.

Last year, rival Uber laid out its vision for the future of on-demand rides: Self-driving cars will cruise around the suburbs, picking people up and driving them to transportation hubs. Within a few years, the company said, the suburbs will be just as connected as cities, with riders able to pay one monthly price, hop in and hop out as needed, and easily get to metro areas without ever needing to drive.

With its latest expansion, Lyft might emerge as the ride-sharing company that's closest to ruling those suburbs. Last week, Lyft announced its plans to launch in 50 more U.S. cities. With the 40 cities the company expanded into in January, Lyft is now in almost 300 U.S. cities. Uber, on the other hand, currently operates in an estimated 209 U.S. cities. Uber did not immediately respond to Inc.'s request for an exact figure.

Lyft's apparently larger geographic coverage reflects a difference in strategy between the two companies. While Uber has spent billions expanding overseas--it's currently available in 581 cities in 81 countries worldwide--Lyft has partnerships with international ride-hailing services but still has no presence of its own outside the United States. The flip side of that is that Lyft is available in some small cities and suburbs not covered by its counterpart--the recent rollout includes municipalities like Parkersburg, W.V. (population: 31,000) and Carbondale, Ill. (26,000).

Self-driving cars especially make sense in locations with less density in population. Drivers in rural areas have complained about rides being so brief, they often have to round up to meet Uber's $4 minimum fare. (One driver's total cut after a night with 10 hails: $15.51.) Autonomously-driving vehicles could help give ride-sharing companies access to customers they otherwise couldn't reach--without Lyft or Uber having to worry about drivers getting enough work to make it worth their while.

Uber has a head start when it comes to self-driving technology, but Lyft is catching up. Uber rolled out a fleet of autonomous cars in Pittsburgh in September. It also launched a fleet in San Francisco in January, a month after its initial rollout was halted by the city. During this test phase, a driver remains in the vehicle, ready to take control should something go wrong.

While Lyft is yet to run any sort of public pilot of self-driving technology, the company says it's getting close. Lyft announced it plans to roll out cars that can autonomously cruise along fixed routes sometime in 2017, with the goal of making all of its vehicles fully autonomous by 2022.

The timing of Lyft's big expansion is interesting--while it surely took months of planning, the announcement comes at a time when Uber is embroiled in a number of controversies. In January, the #deleteUber hashtag trended on social media after customers perceived the company as having undermined New York taxi drivers' strike in protest of the Trump administration's immigration ban. Founder and CEO Travis Kalanick was a member of Trump's economic advisory council, which rubbed many customers the wrong way--so much so that Kalanick quit the committee in early February.

And last week, a blog post written by a former employee described a sexist work culture and alleged that the company repeatedly ignored complaints to human resources. That prompted Kalanick to announce he was hiring former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder to investigate the claims.

There isn't yet much indication that the problems have caused measurable financial repercussions for Uber, though 200,000 people have reportedly deleted their accounts in recent weeks. Lyft, meanwhile, which donated $1 million to the ACLU the same weekend that the #deleteUber hashtag first trended, more than doubled its usual number of daily downloads and surged from the 39th ranking in the Apple Store to No. 4--ahead of Uber's No. 13.

Should Uber continue to battle controversies while Lyft operates and expands without negative drama, the latter company could prove to be a formidable player in the race to bring on-demand service to all corners of the U.S. map. In that case, Uber's vision of a connected suburbia might indeed come true--but not in the way the company hoped.

Published on: Feb 27, 2017