Taxi drivers have spent the last few years begging local governments around the world to put an end to the threat of unregulated ridesharing. Those skirmishes were mere appetizers, however, for the imminent future, in which the rideshare industry actively tries to rid itself of the pesky resource hogs sitting behind the steering wheels of our Ubers.
We all know that sooner or later, human employment as a service driver is going to come to an end; there are too many companies in too many countries making too much progress on automated car technology for unsafe, expensive, and litigious humans to stay behind the wheel.
But real life robotaxis are coming sooner than we would have ever thought possible: Uber announced Thursday that its automated cars are going to begin shuttling passengers around Pittsburgh by the end of the month. Let that sink in: The age of the hirable robotaxi for the masses will begin within the next twelve (12) calendar days.
Of course, Google’s driverless cars have driven millions of miles, as have autopilot-enabled Teslas (the feature was delivered overnight via a software upgrade, of all things).
But Uber’s move is strategically different. Google has no currently obvious or imminent business strategy for its cars. Tesla is not currently in the business of automating humans out of relevancy (long term, Elon Musk has suggested the company might become an Uber competitor). Uber’s cars, meanwhile, will actively be competing with and making irrelevant the moms and students and two-job-hustlers Uber has long held up as the human capital that make its platform so compelling.
Some of the drivers who Uber used to promote its platform in Austin. Image: Rideshare Works for Austin
Meanwhile, Uber’s recent acquisition of the driverless truck company Otto signals that the company is inevitably going to get into commercial long-haul trucking, a task that is notably easier to automate than that of urban traffic-navigating taxi driver. The takeaway here is that Uber wants to pull the jobs of all human drivers into its platform’s orbit and then summarily eliminate them.
In the long run, this is a good thing. Ultimately, driverless cars will be much safer and more efficient than human-driven ones. Riding in a driverless car will be more convenient than owning one, and driverless cars may eventually allow us to rethink how we design cities and parking lots. There are many, many compelling reasons to hurtle forward toward a future where cars drive themselves.
But Uber’s current project, as it will work in beta testing, sounds very exciting only in a gee-whiz the future is crazy sort of way. While we may look back at this as a turning point in technological history, the imminent future sounds janky as hell. In exchange for a free ride, you get this lovely sounding experience (from the Businessweek piece announcing the move):
“For now, Uber’s test cars travel with safety drivers, as common sense and the law dictate. These professionally trained engineers sit with their fingertips on the wheel, ready to take control if the car encounters an unexpected obstacle. A co-pilot, in the front passenger seat, takes notes on a laptop, and everything that happens is recorded by cameras inside and outside the car so that any glitches can be ironed out. Each car is also equipped with a tablet computer in the back seat, designed to tell riders that they’re in an autonomous car and to explain what’s happening. ‘The goal is to wean us off of having drivers in the car, so we don’t want the public talking to our safety drivers,’ [Uber’s engineering director Raffi] Krikorian says.”
These professionally trained-engineers, then, are not your average Uber driver. There is no short-term job in an automated car for the recently laid off guy who drives Uber to make ends meet.
When I read that passage in Businessweek, my mind instantly fixated on an imagined scene in which some hammered college students hail a randomly assigned driverless Uber and proceed to be shushed by a “safety driver” with their fingers hovering an Uber-designated several millimeters off the steering wheel. Beside him, a silent copilot furiously pecks away at his laptop—Notes: Belligerent, uncooperative subjects requested “Panda” by Desiigner. Request declined. Meanwhile, a single tear rolls down the cheek of a single mother in an adjacent van as her Uber app gleams silently with no incoming ride requests. Somewhere, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick smiles as she deactivates her app and goes home to her TV dinner.
I have perhaps an overactive imagination, but, outside of the novelty, why would you want to ride in this car? This is a beta test, sure, but Uber has not articulated why it wants passengers in the cars right this moment. Is it to change the public perception of driverless cars? Is it purely for PR or the thrill of a driverless car lottery (again, Uber is selecting these passengers at random; it has not said whether or not users can opt out). Two people on the Uber public relations team forwarded my request for comment to others within the team, but no one responded to me.
It’s hard to see how the current setup is going to inspire a lot of early confidence in the technology: The Businessweek article notes that Uber’s robot driver can’t really navigate Pittsburgh’s bridges, that the car regularly turns off automated mode because it’s not sure how to deal with a traffic situation.
These early problems are not unsolvable flaws in the technology and do not speak to the ultimate future of driverless technology, which is why these current limitations aren’t showstoppers. But Uber’s insistence in rolling this out to the public now, in its current state, speaks to how impatiently annoyed Kalanick is that he has to pay drivers anything at all.
"When there's no other dude in the car, the cost of taking an Uber anywhere becomes cheaper than owning a vehicle. So the magic there is, you basically bring the cost below the cost of ownership for everybody, and then car ownership goes away," Kalanick said in 2014.
The not-so-subtle undertone here is that Kalanick believes his company’s reliance on a fleet of human “dudes” is a market weakness, an unnecessary cost. Uber’s battle was never with the taxi drivers—making them irrelevant was simply a byproduct of the end-goal. The real market inefficiency Kalanick was always trying to exploit was the human-as-driver job market.