Toyota acquires Lyft's self-driving unit, boosting its automation ambitions

Lyft already allows consumers to book rides in self-driving vehicles in select cities.
Lyft already allows consumers to book rides in self-driving vehicles in select cities.PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (REUTERS) - Toyota Motor will acquire Lyft's self-driving technology unit for US$550 million (S$730 million), the companies said, as the Japanese firm steps up its automation ambitions with the newly created Woven Planet division.

The acquisition of Level 5 automation will also provide Toyota access to the United States ride-hailing firm's more than 300 employees involved in the essentially complete autonomy technology.

"This is the first step of establishing and bringing together the people. Obviously building technology and product requires people, and that's much what this acquisition is about," Woven Planet chief executive James Kuffner told reporters on Tuesday (April 27).

It will also give Toyota a direct presence in Silicon Valley and London, and expand smart-city project "Woven City" at the base of Japan's Mount Fuji, effectively helping it ride through dramatic changes expected in the mobility industry and major centres, he said.

For Lyft, the deal will allow it to become profitable sooner and takes away the burden and risk of developing a costly technology that has yet to enter the mainstream.

Mr Kuffner said Woven Planet, which was set up in January, intends to continue investing and growing the team, although he refrained from commenting about any timeline or future acquisition plans.

Mr Takaki Nakanishi, an auto industry analyst and chief executive of the Nakanishi Research Institute, said that by expanding partnerships, Toyota is "moving a step towards realising its goals", including self-driving technology.

Toyota, which currently offers Level 2 automation with advanced driver assistance technology, has other self-driving projects and has been working closely with ride-hailing firms.

It owns a stake in China's top ride-hailing firm Didi Chuxing and South-east Asia's Grab, and also had a stake in the self-driving unit of Lyft's larger rival Uber Technology, but transferred the stake when Uber sold the unit in December to car start-up Aurora.

Toyota said in February it would develop and build autonomous minivans for ride-hailing networks with Aurora and long-time supplier partner Denso Corp.

Cash-burning business

Lyft's sale allows it to offload cash-burning side businesses and focus on reviving core divisions following a bruising pandemic year.

It will receive US$200 million cash upfront, with the remaining US$350 million paid over five years.

Lyft did not immediately say how it plans to invest the funds. But the sale will allow it to report third-quarter profit on an adjusted basis of earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation as long as the company continues to recover from the coronavirus pandemic, it said.

The sale will also remove US$100 million in annual net operating costs, it said.

Lyft will now focus on what it can do best with autonomous vehicles by offering services such as routing, consumer interface and managing, and maintaining and cleaning partners' autonomous vehicle fleets, which could mean added revenue, it said.

Lyft already allows consumers to book rides in self-driving vehicles in select cities, in partnerships with Alphabet Inc's Waymo and Motional, the joint venture between Hyundai Motor and Aptiv.

It will continue to collect real-world driving data through some 10,000 vehicles it rents out to consumers and ride-hail drivers. The data is valuable for the development of self-driving vehicles that Woven Planet will have access to under the deal.

But Lyft also believes human ride-hail drivers will remain important for the foreseeable future to serve customers during peak demand periods, bad weather, or in areas where self-driving cars are unable to navigate.