13 Jan 2016

It’s a Friday night at 2 a.m. Bars are closed, your pick-up lines have been rejected (evidently increased Lone Star consumption has an inverse effect on your charm), and at this point, you just want to go home, eat some Captain Crunch, and bid your pants goodbye.

You get on your phone, open your Lyft app and request your driver. Two minutes later — true to advertised wait time — your ride rolls around the corner, pink mustache aglow in the windshield, and pulls up to the curb.

But what makes this Friday night different from any other? The car is driving itself.

By this point we’re all familiar with ridesharing services such as Uber and Lyft. Whether it’s because you drive for them, you ride with them, or you scroll past headlines about city ordinances, insane growth and complaints from bankrupt taxi companies, the two businesses have firmly cemented themselves as fixtures in the world of modern transportation.

Autonomous cars, while not yet prevalent in our day-to-day lives, aren’t a brand-new concept either. In the 1960s, when flying cars were all the rage on The Jetsons, AI enthusiasts were already dreaming of cars capable of navigating the streets on their own. By the late 2000’s, Google had hit the road in the Bay Area with their self-driving cars, and this summer they took to Austin city streets as well. (It’s not just Google that’s exploring this arena either. We wrote a few months ago about how Business Insider reported that “companies like Mercedes, BMW, and Tesla have already released, or are soon to release, self-driving features that give the car some ability to drive itself.” We also noted that the outlet estimates that 10 million cars with self-driving features will be on the road by 2020.)

What is new, however, is the idea of combining these two technologiesof creating a fleet of self-driving cars with the ability to pick up and drop off public passengers with the simple tap of an app. And it’s not just a new idea, but one that’s officially in the works, as General Motors and Lyft recently announced that they are teaming up to build a “network of on-demand autonomous vehicles.”

Now at its surface, this seems like kind of a great idea: We’re taking two rapidly growing, industry-changing technologies and combining them. And as a bonus, they’re both technologies that the public has proven to be comfortable with. Lyft and Uber are already employed by millions of passengers while in one survey, 60 percent of US adults claimed that they would trust driverless cars, proving that many people probably wouldn’t hesitate to accept a ride from an automatic vehicle. (After all, services like Uber, Lyft, Airbnb and the sharing economy in general have already gotten people to trust strangers; getting them to trust robots should be a breeze.)

But despite the surface appeal of this idea, it also raises a few questions. After all, Lyft relies on crowdsourcing, utilizing members of the general public to fill the demand for cars and drivers. This would completely alter their business model, and for this to even make sense as a partnership, as Wired explains, “any car GM builds for Lyft must be 100-percent autonomous and capable of navigating the most harrowing urban conditions America has to offer.”

On the flip side, the idea of GM, an automaker, creating a system that for many could make owning a vehicle unnecessary, seems a bit paradoxical. However, as Wired also reports, GM is well aware that relying on the traditional car-driver model won’t be enough to sustain their business, and CEO Mary Barra has previously claimed that the company will accept and adapt to the fact that human drivers will eventually be a thing of the past, saying “We are disrupting ourselves.”

Basically, while we might not know exactly what the aforementioned “network of on-demand autonomous vehicles” will look like, when it will arrive and the degree of autonomy we’re looking at, the news does introduce an interesting vision for the future of transportation. (Another recent, very different update that’s changing the game? Uber’s just-announced partnership with transportation technology company TransLoc, a move towards integrating with mass transit.)

In the end, no matter how this partnership evolves, there’s one thing we can certainly count on, and that’s more pissed-off cab companies.