Over the past year, companies with their eyes trained on the future of transportation, from Silicon Valley startups to Rust Belt standbys, have dazzled observers with demonstrations of vehicles that drive themselves.
Lyft cofounder and president John Zimmer is as optimistic as anyone about the possibilities of autonomous cars, yet he says he's not impressed with some of the highly publicized features and experiments generating buzz.
"I would argue that what's happening with other companies is more of a marketing stunt," Zimmer tells Inc. He declined to state names of companies to which he was referring, saying, "Not gonna be specific, but I think you can make your guesses."
He describes these unnamed efforts as examples of features similar to Tesla's "autopilot" mode. What would truly be impressive, he says, would be demonstrating vehicle technology that eliminates the need for a steering wheel altogether.
That advanced level of autonomous motor vehicle technology is coming soon enough, and Lyft plans to be in the vanguard of it. Five years from now, Zimmer foresees a fully autonomous fleet of cars providing most Lyft rides.
And when that happens, Americans will start utilizing on-demand transportation vastly more than they do today, with huge implications for cities and automakers. "The market is very small today compared to what it will be," he says. "This is something that's going to play out over 10 years."
In a Medium post published Sunday, Zimmer laid out some of his views in more detail. Tesla CEO Elon Musk's vision of private car owners renting out their autonomous vehicles? Close, but no cigar, he says.
"Elon is right that a network of vehicles is critical, but the transition to an autonomous future will not occur primarily through individually owned cars," he writes, explaining that Individual car owners won't feel comfortable renting vehicles to strangers.
Lyft's advantage: "Our fleet will provide significantly more consistency and availability than a patchwork of privately owned cars," he writes. He goes on to describe subscription-based transportation service: "We don't often think about it, but owning a car and making monthly payments also means paying retail prices for every aspect of getting where you need to go -- fuel, maintenance, parking, and insurance. In a future subscription model, the network will cover all of these costs across a large network of cars, passing the savings onto you."
The setup sounds similar to the long-term roadmap Zimmer described to Inc. over the summer.
As the autonomous fleet is introduced, conditions under which autonomous cars are permitted to function may be limited in some areas. Perhaps certain intersections will only be navigable by human drivers for a period, or certain weather conditions off limits to self-driving cars.
The promise of a future of fleets of cars operated by Lyft as a company as opposed to being owned by drivers seems in some ways like a departure from the company's emphasis on its relationship with drivers. Zimmer clarifies that more drivers will initially be needed as we move toward a future where people don't own cars, in order to bridge a gap period between transportation networks that assume car ownership and future models that assume virtually no one owns cars.
Zimmer predicts that as soon as 10 years from now, Lyft will virtually no longer need drivers. As for what happens with these drivers, he says he expects part-time drivers to be shed through attrition while full-time drivers remain on the platform longer to take on remaining trip types unsuitable to autonomous vehicles. He also predicts there will be roles for drivers involved in fleet operations.
With Uber recently beginning a pilot of self-driving vehicles in Pittsburgh to media, and with Tesla already testing its autopilot features (and drawing some concerns about safety), it's easy to ask whether Lyft might be running behind schedule compared to competitors.
Zimmer points out that Lyft, in partnership with General Motors, is already testing self-driving vehicles in Phoenix and San Francisco. He wouldn't say when the company might start offering the rides of the future to the public.