Jan 26, 2016 · 8 minutes

Good God, Lyft.

First it was the pricey “download the app and get a ride” ad campaign, ie “Heard of Uber? Yeah, us too!”

Then it was the “we’re number two!” PR campaign.

Now comes Lyft’s next masterclass in how to erode any sense of difference between its own service and that of Uber. The company has launched a widespread press campaign on its imagined future with…. wait for it… self driving cars.

Yep, Lyft’s next big selling point is…. something Travis Kalanick talked up as the future years ago. Something Uber even started investing in itself years ago. More impressively, it’s something which is absolutely guaranteed to turn drivers against Lyft.

Lyft: You know how Uber keeps talking about killing off drivers? Now we do that too!

The bullish talk on self driving cars is new, and comes on the back of the company’s recent $500m investment from GM.  Prior to that, CEO John Zimmer certainly didn’t close the door on self-driving cars, but he was loathe to bring the topic up himself. He was also very careful to walk a fine line between sounding pro-technology and pro-future but also pro-driver. When asked at our PandoMonthly a little more than a year ago he said:

It’ll take some time but I think there’s a real good chance that will happen. It is safer, it’s more efficient and it is cheaper. I think there’s a role for drivers in that transition. I think it would be really neat if you could let drivers invest in that future and earn money as that transition happens. 

He was wise to hedge in such a way, given Lyft’s very distinct market position back then and desire to look more communal and driver-friendly. From the same interview:

We will continue to stay true to who we are and the way we think the world should be. We started with people sitting in the front seat because we want to treat people equally but we think from a business perspective, it allows us to go after a larger opportunity...Our goal is that all of you become Lyft drivers. If you were to ask how many of you are willing to be a taxi driver or how many of you are willing to be a friend with a car, a lot more people are willing to be a friend with a car. 

“Our goal is you all become Lyft drivers” doesn’t square so well with “for five to ten years and then none of you will be and we’ll be able to make more money.”

But that was old Lyft. The Lyft that used to be a differentiated company. Now increasingly, it’s just branding itself as a smaller Uber.

To wit: This is the first time I can remember that Lyft has pro-actively staked out a brand position that’s inherently anti-driver. A year ago I had to pry and answer out of him on self-driving cars. This week, it’s a press tour.

I can’t for the life of me understand what they gain out of the about-face. Right now, Uber is under assault for its increasingly abusive relationship with drivers, cutting prices to drive greater market share while it gives itself a greater cut of each fares, leaving some drivers making less than $.30 per mile. And Uber has promised it’ll get rid of them completely when it can.

The clearest sign of how CEO Travis Kalanick feels about drivers? He’s reportedly started blocking them on Twitter when they complain about the cuts. And why not? He’s only gotta deal with them for another decade more, right? After that if a robot “driver” complains, it’s just “push a button, and a car deactivates.”

Meantime Lyft has always enjoyed a track record of being friendlier to drivers, and giving them incentives like taking no cut if they drive more than 50+hrs a week and encouraging riders to tip. It sort of had to as the smaller company with fewer passengers. But instead of continuing to drive that wedge and recruit more drivers and riders as the company that cares about helping people make ends meet, it’s strangely and suddenly gone all in on the self-driving car future.

Now sure, part of this was about fundraising. GM invested in Lyft expressly to pioneer a self-driving car partnership. But the details shared at the time of that fundraising were sufficiently vague and seemed like a service that could be offered instead of Lyft along with GM, not as a goal for what Lyft wanted the service to become.

Contrast that to what’s being said today:

But with its fleet of “experience pods” dedicated to different themes, situations, and needs, Lyft’s driverless ride-hail service is an opportunity for the company to deliver on a promise it’s held close since the beginning: a superior rider experience. After all, when there are no drivers in the picture, you can focus all your energy on the passenger.

Tired? Hail Lyft’s napping pod. Need to get your nails done before your meeting? There’s a mani-pedi–Lyft pod for that. Want to get some work done? There’s a Wi-Fi–enabled pod outfitted with touchscreen tables to do your work.

At least that’s what Lyft Creative Director Jesse McMillin and his team have started to imagine, here and now in the not-yet-driverless world, just a few weeks after the company announced a partnership with General Motors to create and manufacture an on-demand driverless network...

At the core of McMillin’s project is a fascinating question: What happens to the car when it’s no longer driven by a human? “Most cars are designed around the driver,” McMillin told BuzzFeed News. “Literally, you have the seat positioned a certain way and the window look a certain way for the driver.” But, he said, when you eliminate the human driver, “it’s a new world where … a vehicle is freed up to do different things.” 

To old Lyft, there was no distinction between the driver and the passenger. The driver is just “a friend with a car.” Now the driver is something the company can’t wait to jettison to make room for nap pods. It’s a subtle but significant about face.

And here’s the strangest point: Why now? Most people seem to believe true autonomous vehicles without any required supervision is a decade off. I wrote last week that it may be short sighted for the market leader, Uber, to project such utter disdain for drivers as something they can’t wait to replace if self-driving cars are ten years away and several lawsuits over employment status hang in the balance.

What does Lyft gain by talking up a future of self driving cars years right now? It doesn’t look innovative. Google and Uber have been doing it for years. Even Apple is said to be getting into the self-driving car business. It was the new “wearable” of CES this year. All it does is risk pissing off drivers, for something that may happen in a decade. I’m not even fully confident Lyft will still be a stand alone company in a decade’s time. And it only continues to lessen the differentiation between it and Uber that it used to celebrate.

When we interviewed Zimmer a year ago, he seemed to think the strategy should go in the other direction. I brought up Peter Thiel’s (Disclosure: Founders Fund is both a Lyft and Pando investor) argument in his bestselling book, Zero to One, that the worst place to be as a startup is offering a commodity product where the only way to gain market was cutting price.

That sounds a lot like Uber and Lyft to me.

Think about it: Uber and Lyft not only have identical offerings of getting someone from one place to another, they have almost identical apps, and in San Francisco most drivers I’ve ever had drive for both. Literally, the same people are doing the same job for two different companies. Riders tends to go with whichever is cheaper at any given moment and the tremendous burn rates of both companies show the toll that takes. Especially if funding starts to dry up.  

Zimmer’s answer was that the market is so huge it doesn’t matter and that differentiation would become more apparent in 2015. But the opposite happened. A year after our conversation, Lyft appears to be apeing Uber, whereas it used to pride itself on its distinctive quirky, pro-driver charm.

For most of the history of this young reboot of the transportation industry the two companies have spent billions trying to lure drivers with promises of money, flexibility and being your own boss. Uber even launched aggressive guerilla campaigns to steal drivers from Lyft. At PandoMonthly, when I asked Zimmer if these tactics pissed him off he remembered a time early on at a driver meet up when Uber showed up with “U” cookies that said “Drive for Uber” on the back and how it infuriated him. Now they’re verging on a competition to see who can alienate them the most.

Is it possible that just as the stakes are at their highest, drivers are suddenly that much less important to either company?