With all the scandal in the past year, Uber seems to have tired of lawsuits and rowdy passengers getting into altercations with drivers. But more importantly, it seems to have found its solution. Why not just get rid of the drivers?
In mere weeks, Uber will deploy a fleet of robot cars of Ford and Volvo makes in Pittsburgh. Each car will have an Uber driver behind the wheel in case things go awry, but for the most part, the cars drive themselves.
Uber’s long-term goal? To put their human drivers out of business.
From the horse’s mouth
Don’t believe us? Travis Kalanick, Uber’s Chief Executive, blogged, “Uber is accelerating its plan to replace its 1 million human drivers with robots as quickly as possible.” It doesn’t get more straightforward than that. In the blog post, he also announced Uber’s partnership with Volvo, and the acquisition of Otto, a technology company building driverless trucks.
But this wasn’t the first time Kalanick aired his idea. At the Code Conference in 2014, in an interesting follow-up to Google’s unveiling of a prototype for its upcoming robot-car fleet, he stated, “When there’s no other dude in the car, the cost of taking an Uber anywhere becomes cheaper than owning a vehicle. You basically bring the cost below the cost of ownership for everybody, and then car ownership goes away.”
As the largest ride-sharing company in the world, Uber maintains a fleet of one million drivers spread out over 60 countries. However, the company has not yet announced any plans to deploy self-driven cars in other cities any time soon.
This is just a test
This is a smart move by Uber, which benefits more from testing only a small population with such futuristic and expensive technology before expanding. Aaron Steinfield, an associate professor at the Robotic Institutes at Carnegie Mellon University, made a similar observation. “This will help people understand whether they like these systems or not,” he noted. “And Uber can identify areas where they need to make changes based on feedback.”
Testing customer reception and building familiarity is especially important in the wake of a fatal accident involving a Tesla driver while the car was in autopilot mode. The car failed to detect a white truck moving in, which was involved in the accident. The fatal crash has since prompted a federal investigation into Tesla’s self-driving technology.
This begs the question: If high-end models like Tesla can’t be trusted, even with a driver behind the wheel, will customers feel comfortable trusting Volvos and Fords – good brands, but budget robot cars, in comparison to Tesla? Or will customers just become wowed by a self-operating car and pay little thought to the potential dangers?
Let the show begin
The only way to find out is to deploy the robots and let them do their work. Uber’s best hope is that the cars and the drivers transport customers without incident. It should also hope drivers decide not to protest the one million jobs they are about to lose around the world to make the robot fleet possible.