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Buckle your seat belts, everybody. We’ve reached peak disruption: a story of the gig economy intersecting with the rise of the robots. From Thomas Lee in the San Francisco Chronicle:
From taxicab unions and package couriers to politicians and regulators, a growing crowd of people would like to destroy Uber. Add one more name to the list: Uber founder and CEO Travis Kalanick.
Somewhere lost in the scrum over whether Uber drivers are employees or contractors, or whether the company conducts proper background checks, is the simple fact that Kalanick wants to eventually replace all Uber drivers with software and computers. Like Google and Tesla, Uber is trying to develop a car that can drive without a human operator.
The piece, of course, dedicates a fair amount of time to what Lee perceives to be Uber’s hypocrisy: the company’s current PR strategy partially revolves around arguing that it offers drivers a better deal than cab companies, while its long-term strategy would remove drivers from the equation altogether.
I’m inclined to go a little easier on the company then that. If they think this is the way the market is inevitably going to move, I don’t know that they have much of a choice. How are you going to compete if your price has to include labor costs that your competitors aren’t shouldering?
What’s more interesting to me is the fact that the vision here is bigger than Uber. Indeed, what Kalanick and company have in mind is nothing more than the destruction of the idea of personal automobiles. From the Guardian piece by Alex Hern linked in the quote above:
While a full move to driverless cars would be Uber’s dream scenario, letting it cut the cost of a ride to little more than fuel plus wear and tear, it could very well be a nightmare for car manufacturers. Self-driving cars could prove the death-knell for private car ownership, with services like Uber offering a cheap substitution while avoiding the wastefulness of leaving an asset worth thousands of pounds sit unused on the side of the road. A self-driving car can carry someone from home to work, head off to a different office and pick up someone going to the airport, even take a package in the boot to be delivered to a client – all while a conventional car would be sitting in its owner’s car park.
Perhaps because of that, the focus from the conventional auto industry has been less on driverless cars, and more on using self-driving technology as a safety feature to augment traditional driving. For instance, a number of cars already on the market are able to maintain a steady cruising speed, stay in lane, stay a safe distance away from cars in front, and even park themselves, all without human intervention. In a patchwork fashion, those cars could eventually build up to almost full automation – but the signals coming from the industry indicate that the final step might be something they are loathe to take.
I own one of these “AI vehicles,” and I have to admit that this technology is very cool (though not yet reliable enough that you would rush out to get the fully automated version). Still, I’m conflicted — and I wonder if you are too.
I’m largely receptive to the intellectual case for driverless cars. But I’m emotionally resistant.
Now, granted, I’m an outlier when it comes to romanticizing driving. In just the past year or so, I’ve piloted my SUV through 42 states. For tax purposes, my official residence is the interstate highway system. But I don’t think you have to be as much of a road warrior as I am to be a little uneasy about this. (Please note before you jump into the comments that this in no way means I think we should attempt to arrest technological progress on this front.)
Here are my questions: Are those of us who feel like we’d be losing some ineffable freedom by having the wheel taken away from us just sentimental luddites? Should we just chill out and await the brave new world of driverless cars and hyperloops? Will personal automobiles become indulgences rather than necessities? For that matter, to what extent can they coexist with driverless vehicles?
I realize I’m getting perilously close to “Get off my lawn” territory. I’m just hoping I’m not the only one.