We welcome Brett as a guest contributor for this article. Brett has been a rideshare driver since early 2014, and blogs about his experiences on his blog, rideshareapps.com. Brett is a regular contributor on SherpaShareBlog.com.
Over the past few years, the rideshare landscape has changed dramatically. But news that General Motors recently announced a $500 million stake in Lyft’s self-driving car department while Uber lured an entire department of robotics engineers, promises to change the rideshare landscape completely and irreversibly. To put it rather bluntly, it appears that the main rideshare companies are looking to replace their existing model of fleets of drivers as independent contractors with autonomous vehicles. When produced on scale, these cars will very likely be less expensive and more efficient than drivers are now.
It won’t be long before a situation like this one unfolds: you are wandering around town on a weekend and need a ride home. You pull out your phone, open Uber or Lyft, and request a ride. You wait a few minutes and a driverless car shows up to take you home! But how long?
How will autonomous vehicles affect drivers?
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has already openly admitted that he would like to shift his fleets to a driverless model, in a move he calls “Optimistic Leadership.” In an analogy comparing Uber to the cab companies (surprise, surprise), he admits that he doesn’t want to get left behind like the cab companies did when Uber came along. I truly think he is onto something big here. Google has been working on driverless cars for years now, so with Uber fully expecting to be world’s largest transportation provider, it only makes sense to be at the forefront of this kind of innovation.
The big question that arises, however, is how will this affect the drivers? Will they manage their own fleets of driverless cars, similar to what the taxi industries do now—a new hybrid breed of driver/entrepreneur? Drivers are currently using their personal vehicles to drive, but what if Uber wanted complete control of the market? They could actually own or even build their own fleets, and then they get to keep everything for themselves.
I think this could go either way, or both. Uber could own all of those assets, but alternatively they may give up ownership of autonomous fleets of cars entirely to driver/entrepreneur. My personal opinion is that there will be some type of co-ownership that will allow the market to work in equilibrium and keep both sides happy. We can only speculate as to what will ultimately take place.
The current driverless vehicle landscape
While we currently don’t know how exactly driverless cars will affect the rideshare industry, we do know what steps these companies are taking to position themselves. There are many aspiring companies working on this issue, but two pieces of news stand out, big time:
First, Uber practically bought out the entire robotics department from Carnegie Mellon. They poached dozens of engineers, drawing both criticism and praise for the move. Uber is also giving $5.5 million to the university that will go towards sponsoring three graduate fellowships and funding a new robotics faculty chair position.
Second, Lyft partnered with General Motors in a $500 million deal that will allow both companies to leverage each other’s technology and influence to create a significant alternative to Uber. While this is a long-term play, we may start to see elements of this soon, such as more GM cars as Lyft vehicles. This is not only a major step for Lyft, but also for a dull car industry that hasn’t truly innovated or stepped outside its comfort zone for years.
In a statement addressing the long-term strategic alliance with Lyft, General Motors President Dan Ammann said: “We see the future of personal mobility as connected, seamless and autonomous. With GM and Lyft working together, we believe we can successfully implement this vision more rapidly.”
But for as much traction the companies are making in the short term, there are still many hurdles to clear and potential problems that could arise in the future. Aside from upsetting drivers and autonomous driving cynics, a few main issues stand out to me:
- Safety features: How does a machine ensure passenger safety? If a passenger isn’t wearing a seat belt, can it be proven? Which leads us to…
- Privacy: Will rideshare companies film passengers inside the car? Will home base monitor the fleets for suspicious activity?
- Other humans: Google’s biggest problem isn’t their own cars, but rather the issues that arise due to humans driving other cars. This will be a huge hurdle for Uber and Lyft.
- Bodily fluids: An Uber or Lyft passenger may puke or pee in the car. This happens all the time, so what safeguards are there to ensure it doesn’t happen in a robotic car, and will the car then drive itself home by somehow detecting that it needs to be cleaned?
- Drunk passengers passing out: People pass out in rideshare cars all the time, but what happens when they do this without a human driver to wake them up? What if they type in the wrong address?
- Government regulation: The biggest hurdle of all is the bureaucracy of government. I think society and users will quickly adopt these new technologies, but there will be significant push-back from government regulators as it may very likely lead to a very rapid mass unemployment, in addition to the road safety implications. We’ve seen similar resistance from those who opposed the introduction of ridesharing, which was a bold and revolutionary transition, but this next transition to autonomous cars will endure even more opposition.
A driver’s take
As a driver, I’ve been very curious about this entire subject. I’ve followed the news and read many articles about it, always trying to see how the new technology will shape our future. For the time being, I think drivers are safe. There will be a slow ease into autonomous vehicles being allowed onto public roads, most likely starting in California and then gradually working its way across the country. Just as Uber and Lyft battle over promo codes and ride fares now, they’ll be battling with autonomous technology next.
Most drivers I speak to are very worried about being completely cut out in the future. While I understand that perspective, I do however truly think that rideshare companies will find a way to incorporate drivers into their business model, while foremost keeping their investors happy.
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Featured Photo Credit:A Mercedes concept of what the interior of a future autonomous car might look like