Uber Attempts To Quell Drivers' Fear of Displacement

Uber began recruiting its drivers to apply for positions as autonomous vehicle operators to help in the ride-share company’s research endeavors.

by Daniel Moore, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette / September 15, 2016

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Now that Uber’s driverless vehicles have hit the streets — with select riders in Pittsburgh among the first in the world to see the technology up close — it means another wave of automation is rippling the fabric of yet another industry that could eventually see human labor replaced by technology.

On Wednesday, Uber sought to get ahead of that criticism and assure drivers, engineers and technicians that their skills are needed, even as the company began recruiting for autonomous vehicle operators to help in the ride-share company’s research endeavors.

In a letter sent to drivers, Jennifer Krusius, general manager for Uber Pittsburgh, wrote that the San Francisco-based company is assembling a workforce to demonstrate driverless technology. Using both its test track in Hazelwood and a limited area of Downtown and the Strip District where it will offer rides, Uber will need to cover hundreds of millions of test miles and to diagnose problems along the way.

“We know you’ll have questions about what this technology means for your future,” Ms. Krusius wrote. “The past has shown that technology creates new work opportunities, while disrupting existing ones.”

Citing a 2015 report from the International Monetary Fund, she argued that while some people predicted ATMs would spell doom for bank tellers, they lowered the cost of running a local bank so more branches opened, employing more people. Meanwhile, a PNC Financial Services Group executive told investors Wednesday that the Pittsburgh bank continues to replace teller windows with advanced-function ATMs.

“Self-driving Ubers, for example, will be on the road 24 hours a day, which means they’ll need a lot more human maintenance than cars today,” Ms. Krusius wrote.

The emailed letter included a link to a job application for a position called “development field operator,” a position that crosses the technical aptitude of an auto engineer with the skills of a taxicab driver who must interact with customers with the endurance of a long-haul driver. “Mission success is often measured in terms of hours logged in the vehicle,” the posting reads.

The operator is expected to ride in the autonomous cars in shifts and complete data reports for Uber’s engineers. Perks and benefits include a 401(k) retirement savings plan, a health care package, monthly credits for Uber rides and an unlimited vacation policy.

The company would not comment Wednesday on the posting or its hiring efforts.

How Uber’s technology will disrupt its human employees and the broader U.S. driving workforce — there are roughly 900,000 people are employed across the country as truck drivers alone — remains to be seen.

As of April, the company’s spokeswoman estimated Uber had about 4,000 active drivers in the Pittsburgh region.

In her letter, Ms. Krusius said it’s “still early days.” She envisions the ride-sharing future being a mix of trips completed by human-driven and self-driving vehicles.

“This is because of the limits of self-driving software and the skyrocketing demand for better transportation that drivers like you are uniquely able to solve,” she wrote.

In that vision, Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., a left-leaning think tank that researches labor issues, saw a remarkable admission of just how far Uber’s technology has to go to reach even partial automation.

“Some of the automation that people fear is really far off and uncertain, and I think that includes self-driving cars,” Mr. Mishel said. “We’re much closer to having vehicles that are relatively automated on highways, but urban driving is a much more complex problem to solve. And I think this is a recognition of that.”

Mr. Mishel said he agrees with Uber that automation tends to foster economic growth.

If Uber’s technology one day brings down the cost of providing a ride from $10 to $5, people will have $5 in their pocket they didn’t have before. That extra money will lead to an overall better working economy, he said.

“The idea that automation is going to eliminate jobs in the economy overall is at best exaggerated and almost certainly is not true,” Mr. Mishel said.

Still, others said the widespread economic benefit could come with focused job losses once Uber’s technology matures.

“To believe that it’s a great idea for the human drivers is a real stretch,” David Hummels, a professor of economics at Purdue University, wrote in an email.

“There are certainly many examples where better technology has led to increased employment, but that tends to be in cases where the technology complements human labor. ... Once they jettison the co-pilot, then the argument goes out the window.”

©2016 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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