SAN FRANCISCO — Controlling the future of the smartphone was the defining technology battle of the last decade. Now, technology companies are betting that the next 10 years and beyond will be spent battling for control of the self-driving automobile.
On Friday, Lyft, the ride-hailing company, announced that it was developing its own self-driving technology, marking yet another company’s gamble that the future of transportation will be marked by self-driving cars.
Lyft is marking the occasion with the opening of a new self-driving-research facility in Palo Alto, Calif., and plans to heavily recruit new engineering and technical people for the facility after it opens in the coming weeks.
“We aren’t thinking of our self-driving division as a side project. It’s core to our business,” said Luc Vincent, vice president of autonomous technology at Lyft. “That’s why 10 percent of our engineers are already focused on developing self-driving technology — and we’ll continue to grow that team in the months ahead.”
Uber, Lyft’s much larger rival, has spent millions opening facilities in Pittsburgh, Toronto and San Francisco dedicated entirely to autonomous-vehicle research, while building its own hardware and software systems to operate the vehicles. And many other companies, from Alphabet’s Waymo unit in Silicon Valley to major auto manufacturers in Detroit and Europe, are also working on autonomous-driving technology.
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Lyft is taking a markedly different approach from Uber. While Uber’s self-driving plans have mostly been a solo effort, Lyft has announced what it calls its Open Platform Initiative, a way to develop autonomous vehicle technology in conjunction with automakers and technology companies.
“We want to bring the whole industry together with this, and we think there’s a unique opportunity in time right now for Lyft to become a leader while doing it,” said Raj Kapoor, Lyft’s chief strategy officer, in a press event at the company’s San Francisco headquarters.
Perhaps the best way to understand the initiative is through the lens of the smartphone.
Uber’s approach is closer to that of Apple: Both companies want to control most of the product, whether the software or the hardware.
Lyft, in contrast, is acting a bit more like Google in its development of the Android operating system. Both companies are creating software that many different hardware manufacturers can use, while developing the technology collaboratively with hardware partners. In Lyft’s ideal world, that could mean a quicker spread of Lyft’s technology among automakers.
Automakers are scrambling to develop their own self-driving technology as they imagine how they might operate in a future in which fewer people own cars. Collaborating with Lyft could help bring that technology to market faster, while automakers could provide Lyft’s ride-hailing network with more cars to serve riders.
Lyft is seeing early signs of traction. Early partners include Waymo, nuTonomy, Jaguar, Land Rover and General Motors. The public details of the partnerships are scant, but all of the companies have committed to working together to make self-driving cars commonplace.
There are potential drawbacks. Partners could decide to leave the Open Platform Initiative and develop their own software. Or companies could be wary of teaming up with Lyft because it is developing its own self-driving system.
Lyft executives believe that the self-driving-car race is in its early days, and that companies that may consider one another rivals still have much to gain from collaborating and learning while building the automobile fleets of the future.
“Lyft is not getting into the business of manufacturing a car,” Mr. Kapoor said. “We’re on our way to creating a self-driving system. Then the auto industry can bring it to life.”