Uber and Lyft

Ride-hailing services are proving to be big players in the movement towards self-driving vehicles. For these services, the potential for cars that can operate without a driver is exciting and could mean a vast reduction in labor costs. The two biggest ride-hailing services, both of which are working towards autonomous technology, are Uber and Lyft. 


Uber, which is a commercial ride-hailing service whereby riders call a driver using a smartphone app, is looking to get into the autonomous car business. Though Uber drivers own their own cars, drivers are Uber’s biggest cost. If it could get rid of its drivers, then, it would stand to greatly increase its profits. In March 2016, it was reported that Uber was contacting car companies about placing orders for self-driving cars.

While Uber may potentially be looking to contract for self-driving cars, it is also working to develop its own self-driving technology. Uber opened its own autonomous car research center in Pittsburgh in 2015, allegedly poaching engineers from Carnegie Mellon University.  In May 2016, Uber released photos of the self-driving cars it is now testing in Pittsburgh. The photos show that Uber has outfitted a hybrid Ford Fusion with various hardware, including radars, laser scanners, and cameras, to enable it to drive itself. According to Uber, the cars are currently collecting mapping and other data, and a licensed driver is always in the car ready to take control. Uber chose to test in Pittsburgh, at least partially, because of the diversity of road types and weather conditions it can encounter there. Uber has also deployed test cars in the Phoenix area in 2016. 

You can read more about Uber’s test cars at http://www.theverge.com/2016/5/19/11711890/uber-first-image-self-driving-car-pittsburgh-ford-fusion.

In September 2016, Uber was set to begin offering riders in downtown Pittsburgh the opportunity to hail a self-driving car. These cars, however, would still have drivers in them who could take control of the car, as well as an addition person (possibly an engineer). The vehicles are Ford Fusions and will offer level 3 autonomy, with the ability to accelerate, brake and steer under certain conditions. Rides in these self-driving Ubers will be free for customers who opt-in, but the option is only available to a select group of existing customers. Uber has announced that some early problems its cars are facing include navigating on bridges with fewer"environmental cues," navigating in extreme weather such as snow (which covers road markers), recognizing landmarks once the nearby vegetation has changed, and dealing with obstacles that "disappear," such as animals crossing the street. According to reports, the state agency that regulates taxis has said that as long as these rides are free, it does not have jurisdiction over the situation, but it will once Uber begins charging for these rides.

Within weeks after semi-autonomous Ubers hit the streets in Pittsburgh, reports of problems began rolling in. One vehicle allegedly turned the wrong way down a one-way street, while another was rear-ended by a traditional car. How these incidents will be reported and recorded is yet to be determined.

Because many people predict that self-driving cars will first be used in ride hire services, Uber is a company that analysts are watching closely. And because of Google’s stated interest in the ride-sharing business, Uber appears to consider Google, the other huge company to watch, to be one of its biggest competitors in the race to self-driving technology (see http://www.theverge.com/2015/12/16/10309960/google-vs-uber-competition-self-driving-cars).

In addition to creating its own technology, Uber has also recently began focusing more on mapping. While Uber has historically relied heavily on Google mapping, it appears to be trying to establish its own mapping system for its autonomous cars to rely on. You can read more about Uber's mapping efforts here

Further, in addition to its work with standard vehicles, Uber announced in August 2016 that it purchased start-up company Otto, which focuses on autonomous commercial trucks. 


Lyft is a ride-hailing company that allows users to order a car from a smartphone app. Because Lyft’s largest cost is its drivers, finding a way to use self-driving cars would greatly increase the company’s profits.

For now, at least, rather than working to produce its own technology, Lyft appears to be focusing on partnerships with existing car companies. General Motors Co. (GM) and Lyft have recently announced a plan to test a fleet of self-driving taxis on public roads. GM has invested $500 million in Lyft, and the companies plan to use the Chevrolet Bolt in the project. Both companies are being tight-lipped about the details of the project, with very few specifics being released. For now, it appears that the cars, though autonomous, will have a driver in the vehicle ready and available to take control if needed.

Existing laws would likely make it difficult to operate a truly self-driving fleet at this time. Lyft has said that it plans to eventually phase the driver out and a prototype app suggests how a truly driverless Lyft experience might work, giving the app user the ability to contact GM OnStar for questions or help, and to tell the car when to go and when the ride is finished. To read more about these soon-to-come autonomous taxis, go to http://www.wsj.com/articles/gm-lyft-to-test-self-driving-electric-taxis-1462460094. In late 2016, Lyft co-founder John Zimmer wrote that he believes personal car ownership will be phased out of the United States by 2025, and that people will instead rely on self-driving car services. He also stated that Lyft hopes to have an almost fully autonomous fleet by 2022.

Reports in July 2016 indicated that the partnership between Lyft and GM was moving ahead quickly, with rumors that a test autonomous car could hit the roads by the end of 2016.

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