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Self-Driving Taxis Could Have a Vomit Problem

  • Managing self-driving rideshare fleets could be costly, yucky
  • ‘It is a really big issue and no one has figured it out’

It didn’t take long for Pritam Singh to learn a key lesson about working for Lyft. People are disgusting. They have a nasty habit of throwing up in moving vehicles.

Rideshare drivers are acutely aware that customers tend to do that, along with slightly less annoying things like wiping hamburger-greasy fingers on armrests and turning floor mats into swamps of slush. Singh, who ferries passengers for Lyft Inc. in Manhattan several evenings a week, drops about $200 a month cleaning -- really, sometimes it feels like sanitizing -- his Toyota Camry.

For General Motors Co., Uber Technologies Inc. and others mulling a foray into robotaxis, the bill could be in the tens of millions of dollars annually. When you add things like insurance, inventory storage and the steadily shrinking value of beat-up cars? Billions.

That casts a pall on the idea, held dear by the likes of Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick, that the advent of self-driving will swiftly make ridesharing so cheap that most Americans won’t bother to own their own vehicles.

How to deal with vomit represents one of many great unanswered questions about the mythic business model that Kalanick once summed up as, basically, getting rid of “the other dude in the car.” In the future he and Lyft co-founder John Zimmer have described, apps and bots do the work, consumers save big time and investors just rake it in. But number-crunchers at GM and companies including Apple Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo are adding up a lot of costs that will get in the way of robotaxis being cash cows.

Apple and Waymo have turned to Avis Budget Group Inc. and Hertz Global Holdings Inc. for help in managing driverless fleets. Even big rental companies, though, have struggled to contain their own costs in taking care of cars and trucks used by the great unwashed public.

“It is a really big issue and no one has figured it out,” said Mark Wakefield, co-head of the global automotive practice at the consulting firm AlixPartners. “No one is even betting on the...