On-demand ride-sharing service Lyft has been expanding pretty aggressively over recent months, and plans to continue adding new domestic and international cities over the coming year. To help the company navigate a shifting regulatory environment, it’s hired former Google X Legal Director David Estrada as its new Vice President of Government Relations.
Estrada was hired to oversee a growing government relations team within Lyft and to help it establish a legal framework around ride-sharing in new markets. Coming from Google X, he led a team that sought to gain regulatory acceptance for a number of new and experimental technologies.
Most notable among those projects was Google’s self-driving car, for which Estrada and his team was able to get laws on the books in California, Florida, and Nevada. But the legal team also worked on technologies like Google Glass and its smart contact lens.
Now he brings that expertise to Lyft, which faces some regulatory challenges of its own. After nearly nine months refining its service in San Francisco, Lyft’s 2013 was spent adding a number of new markets. While it only added a city here or there for the first half of the year, the last few months punctuated an expansion plan that brings the total number of markets it serves to about 20.
But not every new market has been openly friendly to the concept of ride-sharing, with some regulators and politicians seeking to shut down or curtail operations of services like Lyft, SideCar, or Uber. And while Lyft had success in helping to establish a new set of regulations for ride-sharing services in California, it’s also faced minor skirmishes with local authorities in places like Los Angeles and Seattle.
To date, Lyft has been sending founders John Zimmer and Logan Green, along with other representatives, to rally support for ride-sharing in these local markets when issues arise, but the company recognizes that there’s more it can do to move regulation and political acceptance forward. That’s where Estrada comes in.
He and his team hope to take the success that Lyft and other ride-sharing services have had in establishing regulations in California, and offering those rules as a model for other jurisdictions. But first, much of the work ahead for Lyft’s government relations team will entail educating lawmakers and regulators about ride-sharing. Also, how it differentiates itself from existing models of transportation and other services.
“I think how we have to start is by understanding the interests of local policymakers, to educate them about what Lyft is and how it operates, the relationship between us and the drivers, and answer any questions they have about safety and insurance,” Estrada told me.
And when the company does face local opposition, Estrada hopes to understand where it comes from before moving forward. “We have to determine what is the basis of the opposition? How much is it based on safety, and how much is it protectionism?” If it’s the latter, he says, “sometimes we might have to call out behavior that is purely protectionist.”
To a certain extent, that might signal a slight change in tone for Lyft. While Uber has been very vocal in calling out regulators it believes are seeking to protect the entrenched taxi industry, in most cases Lyft has quietly worked behind the scenes to push its agenda forward.
“We don’t think we need to walk in and act like a heavy and engage in name calling,” Estrada said. “But to the extent that we don’t think that’s winning the day and we have to call out unfair practices, we’ll call out unfair practices.”
So why Lyft? Estrada says he became interested in the transportation problem as a legal advocate for self-driving cars at Google X. But he says Lyft is more than just about saving CO2 emission by having users share rides or reduce the number of cars on the road. In many ways, it’s about building a new type of social interaction around transportation that doesn’t fit with established transportation services.
Estrada says that what differentiates Lyft is the community connection between drivers and passengers, which contrasts with the traditional model of hopping into the back seat of a cab and having an unequal social or class situation.
“I love that Lyft is ‘your friend with a car’ and you’re making new connections with every ride you take,” Estrada said.
For a look into how Estrada pitched self-driving cars while at Google X, you can check out this video from April last year: