AUSTIN, July 21 (Reuters) - Self-driving startup Argo AI, carmaker Ford Motor Co (F.N) and ride-hail company Lyft Inc (LYFT.O) on Wednesday said they partnered to offer robotaxi trips to Lyft customers in Miami and Austin.
The service is expected to launch in Miami later this year and in Austin next year with a safety driver inside the Ford Escape hybrid vehicles. Over the next five years, the companies want to deploy at least 1,000 robotaxis in multiple cities.
The first truly driverless cars are expected to launch in 2023, said Jody Kelman, head of Lyft's autonomous team.
The partnership marks the first large-scale U.S. collaboration between a carmaker, a self-driving developer and a ride-hailing company. The companies hope to gain valuable insights on how to turn robotaxis into a commercially viable business - a challenge no company has yet answered.
As part of the agreement, Argo AI, which is backed by Ford and Volkswagen AG (VOWG_p.DE), will receive anonomized data on passenger trips and safety incidents. That will allow Argo to optimize its technology and routing to avoid unsafe streets, Argo CEO Bryan Salesky said in a blog post.
In exchange, Lyft will receive a 2.5% stake in the company. At Argo's most recent valuation of $7.5 billion, that equity slice would be worth $187.5 million. Argo, which is currently testing autonomous vehicles in several U.S. cities, in June said it plans to list publicly within the next year. read more
Ford will fuel, service and clean the robotaxi fleets under the partnership.
In traditional ride-hailing services, human drivers make up an estimated 80% of the total per mile cost, according to research firm Frost & Sullivan, underscoring the companies' interest in a driverless future. But self-driving vehicles need to recoup their expensive development costs and still need to be managed and maintained.
"Our job is to generate the maximum revenue out of each of these vehicles by getting the highest utilization," said Lyft's Kelman.
Lyft in April sold its own self-driving technology unit to Toyota Motor Corp (7203.T) for $550 million to focus instead on providing services such as routing, consumer interface and fleet management. read more
Lyft already allows consumers to book rides in self-driving vehicles in select cities in partnership with Alphabet Inc's (GOOGL.O) Waymo and Motional, the joint venture between Hyundai Motor Co (005380.KS) and Aptiv (APTV.N).
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