Beware Uber Drivers! The Robot Cars Are Coming

Uber Self-Driving Car

Uber announced that that the world’s first self-driving Uber cars are on the road in Pittsburgh, the Steel City. The road ahead is still long, but the implications are staggering.

“We’re inviting our most loyal Pittsburgh customers to experience the future first,” says the Uber announcement. “If a Self-Driving Uber is available, we’ll send it along with a safety driver up front to make sure the ride goes smoothly.” Besides the safety driver, there’ll be an engineer who monitors the car at all times.

In 2015 Uber established a strategic partnership with Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) to jointly develop technologies for self-driving cars at the company’s Advanced Technologies Center in Pittsburgh, near the CMU campus. In a recent move to boost Uber’s research and production capabilities for autonomous vehicles, the company acquired Otto, a technology startup that makes self-driving trucks.

The first “Self-Driving” Uber is a hybrid Ford Fusion equipped with a variety of sensors including radars, laser scanners, and high-resolution cameras to map details of the environment, as well as Artificial Intelligence (AI) software to coordinate everything. It’s worth noting that Ford, a top traditional car maker, is betting on autonomous cars. Ford, which is doubling the size of its Silicon Valley operations, announced four key investments for its self-driving cars, expected to be first used by ride-sharing operators like Uber and then made available to consumers.

The company is now focused on getting the technology right and ensuring its safety. In the future, the company believes this technology will mean less congestion, more affordable and accessible transportation, and far fewer lives lost in car accidents.

All seems to indicate that the impact of self-driving cars will be huge. Besides enhanced driving safety, self-driving cars could radically change everyday life, at least in major cities, by reducing the need for owning a car. With fleets of self-driving cars on demand – autonomous Zipcars, or Ubers without drivers – ready to pick up users in minutes, at the tap of a phone app, owning a car could become a hassle instead of a need.

So What About Uber Drivers?

Self-Driving Uber
Self-Driving Uber

The “Uber Economy” seems a very powerful trend. At the same time, traditional taxi drivers feel threatened by Uber’s modern app technology and flexible business model, and demand regulatory restrictions. Uber knows that it is vulnerable to regulatory attacks based on the employment status of its drivers, and has a creative solution – no drivers. And now it’s Uber drivers who feel threatened by automation.

“We know that many drivers will have questions about this technology,” said Uber co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick in a news release co-authored with Otto founder Anthony Levandowski, now VP for self-driving technology at Uber. “It’s still very early: Self-Driving Ubers have a safety driver in the front seat because they require human intervention in many conditions, including bad weather. Even when these technology issues get fixed, we believe ridesharing will be a mix—with services provided by both drivers and Self-Driving Ubers. This is because of the limits of self-driving software and the skyrocketing demand for better transportation which people-powered transport is uniquely able to solve.”

“Technology also creates new work opportunities while disrupting existing ones… Self-Driving Ubers will be on the road 24 hours a day, which means they will need a lot more human maintenance than cars today.”

That’s certainly true, but kind of misleading, because car maintenance specialists – especially for cars full of electronic wizardry – need skills different from those of drivers, so that the people involved won’t be the same. Also, there are lots of Uber drivers – tens of thousands in New York City alone – and the company won’t need that many engineers and maintenance specialists.

In fact, this is a general trend: automation technology does create new jobs, but the new jobs are far fewer than the jobs lost, and have higher skill requirements. The question is, what to do with the masses of unemployable people. The raw logic of capitalism would suggest to let them starve, but hopefully that can’t happen in a modern society. The only viable alternative is to give everyone a guaranteed basic income with no strings attached, no ifs and no buts, sufficient for a modest but decent life.

Uber Self-Driving Car

Images and video from Uber.

Giulio Prisco is a freelance writer specialized in science, technology, business and future studies.