Lyft is doubling down on its self-driving car efforts. This week, the San Francisco company announced that it’d open a second road test site in California, near its self-driving HQ — the Level 5 Engineering Center — in Palo Alto. It also took the wraps off of a new car that’ll join its autonomous fleet: a modified Chrysler Pacifica minivan equipped with cameras, radar, and lidar sensors akin to those employed by Alphabet’s Waymo.
Lyft tells TechCrunch work at the aforementioned new facility will complement the GoMentum Station testing center it uses in Concord, California, enabling a larger number of test runs. There, engineers will mimic real-world driving scenarios involving intersections, traffic lights, roadway merges, pedestrian pathways, other public roads, components of which will be reconfigurable.
As for the forthcoming hybrid minivan, Lyft says it was chosen because of its “size and functionality” and the flexibility it affords the company’s autonomous vehicles team. The cars are currently in production, and they’ll soon hit public roads alongside Lyft’s driverless Ford Fusion fleet.
The developments come after a year during which Lyft expand access to its employee self-driving service, which it recently launched in Palo Alto (where it’s secured permission from city officials) with human safety drivers on board in a limited area. The company says that in 2019, it increased the availability routes “three-fold,” and it says that it plans to grow the regions covered “rapidly.”
Lyft also revealed this week that it’s now driving four times more miles on a quarterly basis than it was six months ago, and that it has about 400 employees globally dedicated to autonomous vehicle technology development (up from 300 earlier this year). According to the company, 96% percent of people who try hailing a driverless in the Lyft app say they want to do so again.
For the uninitiated, Lyft’s Level 5 team is a group of data scientists, applied researchers, product managers, operations managers, and others working toward building a self-driving system for ride-sharing. Since its founding in July 2017, the group has developed novel 3D segmentation frameworks, new methods of evaluating energy efficiency in vehicles, and techniques for tracking vehicle movement using crowdsourced maps.
In March 2018, Lyft began testing autonomous cars on public roads, a year after it completed tests on private roads and launched employee pilots. Separately, the company in May partnered with Google parent company Alphabet’s Waymo to enable the latter’s customers to hail driverless Waymo cars from the Lyft app in Phoenix, Arizona. And it has an ongoing collaboration with self-driving car startup Aptiv, which makes a small fleet of autonomous vehicles available to Lyft customers in Las Vegas.
In July, Lyft released the an open source data set for autonomous vehicle development it said was one of the largest of its kind, with over 55,000 human-labeled 3D annotated frames of traffic agents. Coinciding with the data set’s release, the company announced an engineering challenge for developers interested in building machine learning models using the samples it contains.
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