With Driverless Ubers on Horizon, Drivers' Days Are Numbered

Uber is one of several companies, including Google, General Motors, Audi and Apple, working to replace human drivers with robots.

by Chris Fleisher, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review / August 24, 2016
A Volvo XC90 retrofitted with self-driving technology for Uber. Volvo

(TNS) -- Property taxes were coming due, and Erik Lingren was looking to make extra money.

He cleaned out his Toyota Tacoma pickup last week, expecting to earn a couple hundred dollars by driving people around the city for the ride-sharing service Uber.

Then he heard Uber's intentions to put self-driving cars on the road in Pittsburgh in the next few weeks. Lingren went from feeling like a part of the 21st-century sharing economy to a relic of an era whose time was speeding to an end.

“I have to admit, it did kind of take me aback,” said Lingren, 48, of Shaler. “I thought, ‘That's me. I'm the buggy whip.' ”

Indeed, the days appear to be numbered for ride-sharing drivers as autonomous vehicles gain wider use.

Uber is one of several companies working to replace human drivers with robots. Google, General Motors, Audi and Apple have been developing autonomous vehicles. Ford last week announced it would have self-driving cars widely available for ride-sharing by 2021.

Proponents of self-driving technology say it offers a safer and more efficient mode of transportation. And replacing humans with robots is a clear advantage to companies with a business model like Uber, said Vasant Dhar, a professor of data science at New York University. They can keep all the rider revenue — currently, Uber collects 20 percent to 30 percent of a fare — and avoid expensive labor costs because the drivers are independent contractors.

Uber is facing a federal lawsuit from drivers in California and Massachusetts who want to be considered employees. A victory for the drivers could be costly for the company because Uber would have to pay them a minimum wage and health insurance benefits. A judge last week rejected a settlement that would have required the company to pay the drivers $100 million but not classify them as employees.

“It's a big boost for their business model,” Dhar said of Uber's autonomous cars. “It gets them around the messy problem of dealing with humans.”

Uber has 4,000 drivers in Pittsburgh, offering them a flexible way to make money. But some said they did not rely on driving alone for financial support and were resigned to being expendable one day.

“I figured it was inevitable,” said Jared Froedtert, 44, a high school biology teacher who lives in Saxonburg. “I'm sure that we were guinea pigs on some level.”

Chuck Tobias began driving for Uber last week, a few days before he heard that his new retirement gig could be short-lived. The 71-year-old Plum resident hopes to earn cash for a Caribbean cruise that he and his wife plan to take this year.

“Heck, I could probably pay off what I need on the cruise by doing this for another month or so,” he said.

Tobias' part-time driving job is not likely to disappear before his vacation.

Uber spokesman Craig Ewer said there are technical challenges to be worked out before vehicles can be completely driverless, and that “people-powered cars will still be key to the ride-sharing for a long time to come.”

But the transition may happen in Pennsylvania before anywhere else.

There are no specific regulations for autonomous cars in the state, making it an ideal testing ground for the growing industry. Autonomous cars are viewed essentially in the same way as a car on cruise control, state regulators said. As long as there is a licensed driver in the driver's seat — which Uber has promised there will be — there's no real difference.

Pennsylvania regulators are working on policy for autonomous driving cars and have promised to be welcoming.

“We're looking at how do we support the technology, how do we bring jobs to Pennsylvania,” said Kurt Myers, PennDOT's deputy secretary of Driver and Vehicles Services.

Myers co-chairs a task force that was set up this year to begin shaping policies around autonomous vehicles in Pennsylvania. The task force has state, federal and private industry officials, including researchers from Uber and Carnegie Mellon University, and expects to offer policy recommendations by fall.

Ewer of Uber said he is confident that the new policies would strike the right balance between public safety and technological progress.

“We're optimistic that regulators will take steps to encourage — not inhibit — the kind of real-world testing this technology requires,” Ewer said.

Google also has urged transportation officials to develop federal guidelines to avoid a patchwork of state rules.

Another challenge is persuading riders to trust and accept the technology as safe. Nobody knows how well artificial intelligence responds to unpredictable situations in avoiding a crash, said Michael Wagner, a CMU robotics researcher and CEO of Edge Case Research, which develops tools to test autonomous driving technology.

There's a lot of technical work to be done, Ewer said. For example, the cars don't work well in the rain or on busy streets. Which is why he believes drivers are not going to be replaced in the near future.

But Uber's announcement offers a larger lesson about the so-called “sharing economy,” Dhar said. Services such as Uber and the home-sharing service Airbnb give individuals an opportunity to make money, but that opportunity quickly can disappear.

“Uber has the platform. They have the power, and they are going to get most of the profit, not the suppliers of the platform,” Dhar said. “I question the optimism of the sharing economy that this will lead to wealth for all. I think it could lead to a lot more wealth concentration for the people who own and control the platforms.”

Lingren of Shaler said he will take advantage of the opportunity while he can. He earned about $5,000 by driving for Uber last year and said it provided financial support while he was between jobs.

He took over a Menchie's frozen yogurt franchise last September and is about to open another location in East Liberty. He plans to keep driving for Uber until the store opens in a few months.

If and when Uber no longer needs him, he said, he will be prepared. Still, he is amazed at how quickly things changed.

When Uber arrived in Pittsburgh two years ago, it disrupted an industry dominated by cab companies. Now it may eliminate that industry altogether, Lingren said.

“I guess that's capitalism,” he said. “I guess it's a good thing I've got other plans.”

©2016 The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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