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Lyft Allowed to Test Autonomous Vehicles in California

by Justin Tejada
In the competition to break through in the autonomous vehicle market, different companies hold different advantages.

As perhaps the earliest high-profile entrant into the space over ten years ago, Waymo -- then Google -- has what many consider to be the furthest-developed driverless cars, from software to hardware. Automakers, on the other hand, have the advantage of easy and extensive access to large fleets of vehicles, which will become even more important as the market matures.

Then there's the ride-hailing companies. Uber and Lyft have well-established brands and huge customer bases.

For a long time, Uber was seen as the dominant force in ride-hailing in general and autonomous ride-hailing in particular. But after a series of missteps at Uber, Lyft has gained substantial market share in the overall ride-hailing category and now seems to be making inroads in the self-driving sector as well.

In November, Lyft received a permit from the state of California to test autonomous vehicles in the state. Lyft becomes the 45th entity to receive an Autonomous Vehicle Testing Permit from the California DMV.

An on-road testing permit -- in California or elsewhere -- represents an important step for any self-driving car company. While software simulations and testing on private facilities can provide valuable learning for autonomous systems, there's no replacement for miles logged on public roads.

California law mandates that all autonomous vehicles must be monitored at all times by a human operator in the driver's seat, who sits ready to take over if the vehicle gets itself into trouble somehow. Companies are required to report the frequency with which these humans need to step in to control the car.

Uber, which has tested AVs in Arizona and Pennsylvania, received its permit to operate driverless cars in California in March of this year. In the time between then and Lyft receiving its permit, 18 permits have been issued to entities including Apple and Samsung.

Automakers that have permits to test AVs in California include Mercedes-Benz, Tesla, Nissan, Honda and more. Volkswagen Group of America was the first company to receive a California AV testing permit.

Lyft's acquisition of a license comes on the heels of a series of autonomous driving partnerships in recent months. In May, Lyft and Waymo agreed to collaborate on self-driving pilot projects. In September, Lyft unveiled an agreement with Drive.ai to give autonomous rides to customers in San Francisco, similar to what Uber does with riders in Pittsburgh. Later that month, it was revealed that Lyft had also teamed up with Ford to "take self-driving cars mainstream."

"When ready, we'll have self-driving cars operating alongside Lyft's current community of drivers to help accommodate times of significant consumer demand to ensure that transportation remains timely and affordable," Sherif Marakby, Ford's vice president of autonomous vehicles, said at the time.

Now with an AV testing permit to enable its growing list of powerful partnerships, it's not just Uber that has to pay attention to Lyft: The whole AV world needs to take notice.

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