Argo AI and Ford announced today that they’re partnering with Lyft to provide rides in their robotaxi vehicles. As many on social media have pointed out, there will be safety drivers in the front seats monitoring the vehicle, at least for now. Rides will begin in Miami later this year, and in Austin next year.
“This collaboration is special because we’re executing on a shared vision for improving the safety, access to and affordability of transportation in our cities,” said Bryan Salesky, founder and CEO, Argo AI. “Beyond the link that Lyft provides to the customer, we’ll be able to work together to define where an autonomous service will benefit communities the most and ensure we’re deploying the technology safely.”
Lyft’s role will be to provide customers, just as it does today. Unlike the average ride-share driver who signs up to drive for Lyft and then gets requests via the app, the relationship between Lyft and Argo AI will be a little deeper. Unlike a regular driver, Argo will get access to a lot of important data for further development, and will be testing new technology. Also, Lyft will receive 2.5% equity in Argo AI as part of the licensing and data access agreement.
Argo AI, of course, will be providing the autonomous technology it has been developing with help from Ford.
“Argo and Ford are currently piloting, mapping and preparing for commercial operations of autonomous vehicles in more cities than any other AV collaboration, and this new agreement is a crucial step toward full commercial operations – the addition of Lyft’s world-class transportation network,” said Scott Griffith, CEO, Ford Autonomous Vehicles & Mobility Businesses. “These three companies share a belief that autonomous vehicles will be a key enabler for a cleaner, safer and more efficient urban mobility landscape. This is the beginning of an important relationship between three dynamic companies ultimately aiming to deliver a trusted, high-quality experience for riders in a multi-city large scale operation over time.”
Ford’s part will be more than just to serve as the people with a big wallet. To support a ride-share fleet, the company has been working to establish a physical presence in Miami, Austin, and Washington, DC (all cities where this is happening soon). Ford is going to maintain and support the vehicles, fuel them, clean them, and make sure they’re up to snuff for customers. The company has also been working with local governments to ensure everything goes smoothly.
Ultimately, the goal of the partnership is to provide at least 1,000 autonomous vehicles (or vehicles working toward the goal of autonomy) during the next five years. These seem likely to be concentrated in Miami, Austin, and Washington, DC for now.
“This collaboration marks the first time all the pieces of the autonomous vehicle puzzle have come together this way,“ Lyft co-founder and CEO Logan Green said. “Each company brings the scale, knowledge and capability in their area of expertise that is necessary to make autonomous ride-hailing a business reality.”
Last year, Ford’s chief autonomous vehicle engineer penned a blog post giving more detail on the vehicles that will be used for this venture. Built on the Escape Hybrid platform, the vehicle will be fitted with a variety of sensors.
Atop the vehicle will be the long-range Lidar unit with 128 beams and a 360-degree field of view. Near-field cameras and short range Lidars are mounted along the front, sides, and rear. The post doesn’t specify placement, but they’re using an upgraded radar system as well. Unlike Tesla, which recently adopted a vision-only system, Ford and Argo AI are clearly sticking with a multi-sensor setup.
To power all of this, Ford modified the hybrid system of the Escape, adding battery cells. This allows the vehicle to still get great gas mileage (considering that it’s a crossover with a bunch of extra stuff all over it) while providing the extra power needed for all of the sensors and computing onboard.
All of these sensors, especially the cameras, need to stay clean. To do that, Ford and Argo AI developed a cleaning system that uses compressed air as well as liquid cleaning to keep sensors clean and working without manual cleaning. Combined with hydrophobic coatings to repel water, this should keep all of these sensors working in a broad variety of conditions.
Challenges & Criticism
Just one word of warning if you see any Ford fleet jobs come up in those cities: expect the cleaning part of that job to really suck on weekend nights. If anyone from Ford or Argo AI is reading this, please do everyone a favor and keep $1 Walmart trash cans in the vehicles to catch vomit.
I also hope that Argo AI has been working with experienced ride-share drivers to help develop the program. There are lots of little things to learn.
It’s also worth noting that Tesla fans are panning the program on social media. Why? Because there’s not only one, but two test drivers in these vehicles. The reason for this is obvious: safety. Argo AI doesn’t want to do what Uber did, and have ill-equipped solo test drivers running people over. To have two people at all times definitely shows that they’d rather err on the side of caution.
On the other hand, Tesla’s FSD Beta testing only requires one driver, and Waymo’s Robotaxi fleet has no drivers at all unless something goes really wrong. Whether this means Argo AI is “behind” in the race to autonomous vehicles is open for debate, but that’s the argument some are making.
It seems unlikely, though, that they’d stay with two drivers, or even a driver at all, in the long run. After all, it’s a lot cheaper to just have one human driver drive a car without all of those expensive sensors and computing onboard. Clearly, Ford and Argo AI plan to eliminate the driver at some point, but don’t feel like they’re currently ready to do that. To judge the program, which hasn’t changed goals, by the seemingly over-cautious approach they’re taking today makes little sense.
Featured image and other images provided by Ford.