How autonomous vehicles will change ridesharing forever


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, Brett is a regular contributor on 

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.”


                                                                                                                                                            Via BBC

Driverless skepticism

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.

What’s your take on driverless cars? Share below or join the discussion with drivers throughout the US on our Pulse app (iOS) or Driver app (Android). Read about Filing Taxes for 2015 and download your 2015 mileage report! Again, this page is built by drivers for drivers. Want us to add something new or different? Tell Us!

Featured Photo Credit:A Mercedes concept of what the interior of a future autonomous car might look like

9 thoughts on “How autonomous vehicles will change ridesharing forever”

  1. Whilst I get all the problems you raise, you should add one more: simple pickup and drop off of passengers. Unless you start forcing people to fixed pickup points (unlikely and undesirable) you have the issue that Uber drivers like me face every day: problems that passengers have with setting their location and getting picked up safely. “dropping the pin” is an error-prone travesty in many cases, and people do lots of unproductive things, like walking away from their pickup point. Routing is another issue that pax are going to have to deal with: Uber doesn’t often present the best route and local knowledge is worth 100 computer-suggested ones. How is the driverless car going to deal with that? voice recognition? good luck with that in a highly multi-cultural location and/or high-tourist zone, especially combined with inebriated folks who slur, and just generally dealing with a rapid highly codified route-negotiation interaction that might occur between a pax and the driver. it might only be 2 or three short sentences and new route is settled.

    I’ll be amazed if these problems get sorted out anytime soon.

  2. Guy Above, oh yea. Even when driverless cars become technologically and economically viable, and the laws get straightened out, AND they are viable for an individual person to buy for regular personal use they will still not be viable for at least awhile for Uber/Lyft type use.

    The reasons above will simply prevent it for some time. Dealing with wrong locations, drunks etc will require a human there to mediate. It may be possible as the next step to have a person remotely talk to/deal with people to handle some of those issues. Think a customer service rep popping on a viewing screen asking to clarify what location they want etc. However I don’t know how you would ever deal with passed out people or a few other specific issues. Have a small team of “problem solvers” who literally go to the location of the driverless car to help the passed out person out of the car? I dunno. It may be viable.

    I can see driverless cars being totally viable for highway driving in “regular” cars pretty much any old time. The Tesla is already doing it, but maybe the 2021 Toyota Camry or 2023 Ford Focus could even have that. City driving on lower end cars maybe a few years after that, or maybe at the same time since it’s mainly a software issue… Let’s be optimistic and pretend you can buy a regular car in 2020 that can do “all” the driving in any city or highway…

    Where I see them falling down for a LONG time is in crappy conditions. How is a driverless car going to navigate a country backroad, in the mountains, during the winter, when there are no road lines to see because they’re covered with 9 inches of snow, a couple feet visibility in front of you, and completely unpredictable traction due to varying degrees of ice/snow that changes constantly? How about even New York City in the snow??? I bet even once car companies think they have designed a car that can handle such situations they will probably program the vehicle to “not allow” automatic mode in such conditions just for liability reasons alone. That cuts off half the friggin’ country for half the year. When will they have cars crafty enough that they will allow them to drive in such conditions? I don’t know. But I bet it’s a long time. It seems to me even super heavy fog or rain could throw these systems off for years to come. This to me says cars without ANY steering wheel/human controls will be a LONG ways off. In other words it will be glorified cruise control for a LONG ass time. Which will be cool to be sure, but people will still have to know how to drive for quite some time.

    The interesting thing to think about is in saaay 2021 or whatever when you can buy a Prius with auto pilot, but they still aren’t able to operate completely without a driver, a driver might work for Uber and then essentially just sit there literally the entire time and let the car drive. They’d be there just in case you get that idiot who put in the wrong location, or who passed out in the back seat etc. It would be a pretty easy gig! That also means it will probably not pay very well, but if you could just be slacking and not doing anything it may still be worth it.

  3. To all of you who think self-driving cars are just around the corner, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has a message. “It’s likely to take a lot longer,” Kalanick said Tuesday during a talk at the annual TED conference in Vancouver.

  4. The Seattle City Council has given the Independent Contractors driving in the city for Lyft and Uber the right to unionize. I sense that Seattle drivers have already seen one benefit from that vote – Uber did not reduce the milage pay from $1.35 as it did with many cities.

    Once there is a driver’s organization it may well be possible to limit or prohibit autonomous cars in the city through negotiation with the city. Wishful Thinking?

  5. Factors like pets, children and foreign objects on the road not to mention natural conditions like weather and people error (passenger) will delay installing than autonomous system. But security against unnatural occurrences such as hacking and terrorism and governmental regulation are also resistance agents to change.
    People in general don’t trust the idea of driverless cars transporting them but in the industrial world those limitations do not exist. A driverless long-hall truck moving products and that only needs help at the end points can be cost effective much like a train on the tracks in urban areas. It will be risky.

  6. In order for the autonomous vehicle to become a viable threat to the life of rideshare as we know it, the entire DOT infrastructure will have to be completely overhauled. Even Hollywood, in all their imaginings, hasn’t been able to come up with an autonomous form of transportation to truly rival good old you or me. I know I haven’t seen them all but the most impressive I’ve seen has been iRobot and Minority Report and uh…I don’t think so. 😉 Uber on!

  7. Appreciating the commitment you put into your blog and detailed information you provide. It’s awesome to come across a blog every once in a while that isn’t the same unwanted rehashed information. Wonderful read! I’ve saved your site and I’m including your RSS feeds to my Google account.

  8. I have realized that in old digital cameras, specialized receptors help to aim automatically. Those sensors regarding some cams change in contrast, while others use a beam of infra-red (IR) light, specially in low light. Higher spec cameras at times use a mixture of both methods and might have Face Priority AF where the camera can ‘See’ a new face while keeping your focus only on that. Thanks for sharing your thinking on this blog.

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