GM’s new car rental program for Lyft drivers will also help make them obsolete

Driver only temporary.
Driver only temporary.
Image: Reuters/Stephen Lam
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Earlier this week, Lyft and General Motors announced Express Drive, a new short-term car-rental program just for Lyft drivers.

The program is rolling out in Chicago and will let drivers book cars for $99 a week (insurance and maintenance are included), plus a surcharge of $0.20 per mile. To sweeten the deal, Lyft is reimbursing the mileage fee for drivers who complete more than 40 rides a week, and is also covering the $99 payment for those who top 65 rides a week.

On its surface, Express Drive looks like a response to a car-rental program that Uber debuted with Enterprise back in December. (GM is still working out arrangements with third parties to support Express Drive.) The base cost on Uber’s rental is higher, at $210 a week, but drivers get unlimited mileage.

Both Uber and Lyft say these rental programs are designed to open up their platforms to people who might want to try driving for a ride-hailing company, but don’t have access to the right kind of car.

“Last year in Chicago alone, 60,000 people applied to drive with Lyft but didn’t have a qualifying car,” Lyft explains on its blog. “Express Drive solves this problem.”

But there’s a second purpose of the program—one that will ultimately make those drivers obsolete.

Express Drive is part of Maven, a Zipcar-esque service that GM introduced in late January in its bid to join the “sharing” economy. By building out rental hubs for Lyft drivers now, GM is laying the groundwork for Maven to eventually support a network of self-driving cars, likely on the Lyft platform. Like the cars it’s renting to Lyft drivers, driverless ones will need to be serviced and stored somewhere, assuming they’re not constantly in use. Express Drive is essentially a dry run for our driverless future—but right now, humans are a key part of the testing process.

“The real benefit for Maven is the infrastructure,” says Annalisa Bluhm, a GM spokeswoman. “When we move toward autonomous fleets, which is the goal, those cars need to go somewhere. Someone needs to maintain those cars, someone needs to be responsible from a fleet-management perspective. So all of this is allowing us to move toward that.”

GM’s interest in building out a fleet of self-driving cars is nothing new. In early January, the automaker invested $500 million in Lyft as part of a “strategic alliance to create an integrated network of on-demand autonomous vehicles in the US.” That was also when GM and Lyft first announced their plan to offer short-term car rentals to Lyft drivers, albeit without any specifics.

Since then, GM has purchased the remains of Sidecar —a former Uber competitor—and bought up Cruise, startup that develops self-driving technologies for cars. Mike Ableson, GM’s vice president of strategy and global portfolio planning, said at a Senate Commerce hearing on March 15 that the company could bring self-driving cars to Lyft’s service in a couple of years, but initially with people behind the wheel.

“We would introduce it originally as vehicles with drivers, because we do agree we need to collect data and make sure the systems are operating as we expect them to before we actually start deploying the vehicles without drivers,” Ableson said. “We think this offers a framework that we can develop and deploy this technology in a very safe way.”

All of that puts something of a damper on the short-term rental program being marketed to drivers now. If GM’s vision pans out, Express Drive could also prove short-lived.