By Paul Lienert and Joseph White
DETROIT (Reuters) - An initial public offering by Lyft Inc will give investors a way to jump into self-driving cars, although the ride services company and rival Uber Technologies Inc may have to wait years before sending a driverless robotaxi to a customer.
On Thursday, Reuters reported that San Francisco-based Lyft is close to hiring an IPO advisory firm as a first concrete step toward becoming publicly listed.
Lyft would establish a public valuation for ride services startups that has been elusive. Lyft was valued at $7.5 billion in its latest fundraising, while larger rival Uber is valued at $68 billion. Some question whether that is fair, given the range of scandals at Uber this year. In August, Uber's new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi set a new tentative timeline for Uber's IPO of between 18 and 36 months.
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A ride services IPO tests the belief of many auto industry insiders that individual auto ownership will wane as people will sell their cars and rely on "mobility services" such as ride services, car share, bike share - and self-driving vehicles.
A Lyft IPO "is going to tell us what the valuations of these mobility services companies really are," said Mike Ramsey, research director at Gartner.
A public offering by Lyft, which offers similar services to Uber and markets itself as a friendlier company, is "a proxy for whether next-generation mobility is as disruptive as private investors think it is," said venture capitalist Evangelos Simoudis of Synapse Partners.
Self-driving technology is being developed and tested by dozens of companies, although it is not ready for real-world use.
Self-driving cars are expected to reinforce the move away from individual car ownership, by driving down the cost of a ride and driving up the cost of vehicles.
Auto industry executives estimate the cost of driving a mile in an owner-driven vehicle is about 60 cents to $1.00, and a mile with a Lyft or Uber driver is about $2.50 to $3.00.
Replacing the human driver with artificial intelligence and electronics could eliminate about two-thirds of the cost, they say, and Lyft is making an early, important bet on taking advantage of that change.
An IPO that values Lyft higher than its current $7.5 billion "is a step in a long journey toward self-driving" vehicles, said Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of LMC Automotive.
Lyft already has struck agreements for automakers Ford Motor Co, Tata Motors Ltd's Jaguar Land Rover and General Motors Co; and technology companies Waymo, a unit of Alphabet Inc, Drive.ai and nuTonomy to test autonomous vehicles in its network. That could eventually lead to the technology companies and fleet owners using Lyft as their network provider, although some, including GM, may also create their own services.
Uber, by comparison, has a much deeper financial commitment to developing self-driving technology. "Partner with as many tech companies as possible is the right move," given the number of developers, Ramsey said. But, he added, it would likely be the end of the next decade before there were substantial numbers of self-driving cars creating revenue.
(Reporting by Paul Lienert in Detroit; Editing by Peter Henderson and Phil Berlowitz)