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Can This Lyft Gadget Improve the IRL Ridesharing Experience?

Once again, this is seriously what cabs should have done

Lyft
Lyft

Around the time that the ridesharing economy began booming in major U.S. cities, an embarrassing trend emerged. Drunk and/or privileged people began assuming every car on the street was their Uber or Lyft. We so quickly became accustomed to ordering private cars via smartphone that the issue of sliding into the backseats of strangers’ Priuses unannounced and demanding rides to places like … Long Island … became a very real problem.

Startling innocent motorists in pursuit of a ride home may not be the most dire issue of the ridesharing economy, depending on whose car you accidentally get into. But attempting to locate your driver on a dark street filled with similarly fuel-efficient cars is definitely a pain point, thanks in part to the frustratingly imprecise nature of GPS tracking. Despite the global presence of Lyft and Uber, there is no official etiquette guide for hailing a car or interacting with fellow carpoolers. Digital natives tend to be challenged in the area of polite human interaction, and hailing an app-ordered car off the street is no exception.

Lyft is keenly aware of this. On Tuesday, the company is premiering a device it calls “Amp,” an oblong invention that its drivers will be encouraged to plop at the center of their dashboard to better communicate with passengers. The beacon is meant to replace the various iterations of Pepto-Bismol-shaded mustaches that Lyft has used to mark its cars in the past, but it’s much more capable than its predecessors. For one, it connects to the driver’s smartphone via Bluetooth, so that it can function alongside the Lyft app and react to information accordingly. For another, the device’s 20 light bulbs are much more powerful than the Glowstache’s two — they can brighten, dim, and change color with the push of a button. Naturally, though, its default color is — as one Lyft employee put it — a “kind of ambient magenta.”

Amp’s aesthetic parallels to the lights atop cabs — the mode of transportation that Lyft is indirectly diminishing — are no mistake. “We see this as the next generation of a taxi light,” Lyft’s ride experience lead, Ethan Eyler, said during a presentation to journalists on Monday. “You’re going to see these everywhere, ubiquitously through the city.”

Amp’s most immediate function is to ameliorate confusion around a passenger pick-up through a color-coordination system. As a car inches near, and the small ETA bubble winnows down to one minute, the searching process begins for both the driver and the passenger. It’s at this moment that Amp shines a bright green light, and the passenger has the option to send a similar signal, by pressing a button that makes their smartphone’s entire screen the same color, and dorkily holding it up for the driver to see. (Perhaps also a great beacon for anyone looking for an easy mugging, but I digress.) This makes it clear who’s looking for whom. And even if one finds themselves in the comical city scenario in which multiple Lyfts arrive for multiple people, the company’s algorithm will recognize that, and ensure that each car-passenger match in the immediate vicinity is assigned its own unique color.

Efficiency aside, Lyft wants Amp to be fun. Lyft employees can act as gods behind an operation panel to execute “campaigns” — various Amp hues that celebrate local sports team victories or national holidays, much like the Empire State Building does. And finally, the side of the device that faces inside the car populates cheery, personalized greetings and farewells during your trip — something customers will likely be able to personalize in the future.

In the short but brutally competitive history of ridesharing apps, there has been little differentiation in the core service that people want. Despite channelling a special type of entrepreneurial evil, Uber offers the same thing as its main competitor: an app that will order you a relatively cheap car that doesn’t take, like, forever to arrive. Because most drivers are not technically employed by these companies, they have no need for loyalty. They drive for both, their windows cluttered with placards of each company’s logo the same way a liquor store might display glowing neon signs for both Pepsi and Coke. With Amp, Lyft is aiming to influence something beyond the design of its app or the consistency of its service. It wants to improve the person-to-person interactions that its app makes possible every day.

“There’s the in-app experience, and then there’s the in-car, analog, ‘we are here’ experience,” Eyler told me in an interview after the presentation. “We really see this as a huge differentiator. You know the car is nearby, but GPS isn’t perfect. Solving that problem that everyone’s frustrated by is a big deal to us.”

More than anyone at Lyft, Eyler can appreciate the effect of inviting branding. He is the creator of the original “Carstache,” which he began exclusively supplying to Lyft in 2012. Eyler created the original version of the fuzzy mustache in 2010, and — much to the chagrin of his wife — drove everywhere with it for a year. “It was infectious,” he said. “People would run in front of my car every day and be like, ‘Where did you get that?’” By the time his invention was folded into Lyft, he found himself on the phone with fabric factories, working with Tencel engineers to create grime-resistant mustaches en masse. He even attempted to create an AstroTurf version. His latest, far more high-tech project will grace the dashboards of about 15,000 cars in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and San Francisco a few weeks ahead of New Year’s Eve. And even though the premiere of Amp also means the retirement of the Glowstache, he’s confident that his original contribution will continue to influence how Lyft is viewed.

“It was really important back in the early days because when we first started, it was weird to get into a random person’s car,” Eyler said. “Like, ‘I’m going to get in this guy’s Toyota Corolla?’ It really was there to break down this barrier.”

If anything, Amp will be a new way for Lyft to assert a certain level of control over drivers, especially those who also work for Uber. Eyler hinted that it may also be used to deliver incentives for its contractors in the future.

“In the Lyft fleet, we don’t own the cars; we can’t paint them bright pink,” he said. “But if we see that somebody’s driving and isn’t connected to it, we can ask in the app: Did you lose it, is it broken, what’s going on? We really have a mechanism to get this out.”

Ultimately, now that ridesharing has become a more common practice, it’s Lyft’s hope that this piece of hardware will push past a new set of inconveniences and challenges that have cropped up in recent years, and give customers something that Uber can’t: a beacon of light on that dimly lit street corner.