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Technology / Sharing Economy

Your Uber Driver as a Robot

In 1970, during the so-called third industrial revolution, we used electronics and information technology to automate production. Robots replaced humans in multiple sections of the assembly line, drastically reducing costs and speeding up production. It was a positive period of technological development that enhanced our already-conceived systems; over forty years later, the theme of this year’s World Economic Forum is the “fourth industrial revolution.” The current velocity of advancement has no historical precedent, and the efficacy of our technologies is increasing exponentially.

Imagine being able to download a full-length feature film onto your phone in fewer than five seconds. this is the potential of fifth-generation (5G) wireless technology that telecommunications companies such as AT&T and Google are testing. That is just a glimpse of the revolutionary transformation created by industries across the economy; in the particular case of 5G, it would mean your phone would run one hundred times faster. Although communication speed and other developments seem unrelated, which would contradict the idea of a “fourth industrial revolution,” connectivity is actually the key to understanding where the economy is going. The significantly faster Internet speeds provided by 5G will enable driverless cars to communicate in almost real time, which is essential to synonymous technology’s realization. The sensors on a self-driving car must be able to analyze and react in real time while simultaneously communicating wirelessly with other vehicles, infrastructure, and spontaneous obstacles such as bikers and construction sites.

Photo by Stuart Isett/Fortune Most Powerful Women

Photo by Stuart Isett/Fortune Most Powerful Women

The electrification of vehicles—although already prevalent—will be a significant factor in developing the technology necessary to establish a market for autonomous vehicles. Mary Barra, the chief executive officer of General Motors, discusses electrification in two ways: first, as the process of producing cars that run on electricity instead of gasoline; and second, as the technological amenities within the vehicle. Both are vital to the success of self-driving cars. “By integrating cameras, radars and sophisticated sensors, today’s cars offer an array of intelligent technologies like blind-spot detection, collision warning systems, adaptive cruise control and crash-imminent braking, which can stop your car automatically even when you don’t,” said Barra. The electrification of vehicle amenities becomes even more pertinent when discussing the need for connectivity. General Motors’s OnStar system, which gave us automatic crash response and stolen vehicle recovery and remote door unlocking, was a breakthrough in vehicle connectivity, and it redefined safety and reliability. But if self-driving cars are to become a reality, there is a need for an even higher level of connectivity.

Vehicle-to-vehicle communication (V2V) allows cars to communicate speed, direction of travel, traffic flow, and road conditions wirelessly. Right now, your car’s electrical analytical capacity does not extend beyond itself, but with V2V software your car will be able to communicate with other vehicles on the road, even those that are out of the driver’s sight. This technology will innovate driver safety. According to the United Nations and World Health Organization, “auto accidents cost countries as much as 3 percent of gross national product every year. V2V will significantly reduce these costs. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that V2V could eliminate up to 80 percent of traffic accidents that now occur on U.S. roads—accidents that claimed nearly 33,000 lives in 2014.” V2V is a revolution in automotive technology, but the transition to a driverless society requires much more.

The United Nations estimates that urban populations will catapult to 6.3 billion from the current 3.9 billion by 2050. Severe traffic congestion in cities already costs billions of dollars in wasted fuel. With this increase, how can anybody expect to travel in both a time-efficient and sustainable way? Vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communication is the solution and the next step in building self-driving cars. Looking ahead, Barra said, “When vehicles are connected to smart highways and traffic lights, then linked to highly accurate, real-time traffic updates and navigation systems, we can significantly reduce congestion and urban commute times, in addition to further improving vehicle safety.” But automakers and technology companies see the transformation as gradual, something that will be driven by the gig economy.

Ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft are at the forefront of the development of self-driving cars. General Motors recently invested $500 million into the researching of this technology in an alliance with Lyft, and together the two companies are planning to create a fleet of self-driving cars that riders will be able to summon on their phones. Consider the potential benefits: less traffic, increased safety, and of course, convenience. But what about the hundreds of thousands of drivers who work for these ride-sharing companies? Don’t worry: The transition will be better for both parties.

As my colleague Joseph Amdur mentioned in his recent article about the gig economy, the drivers for these companies are contractors, not employees; consequently, they do not receive benefits such as healthcare and 401(k) contributions. Powerful corporations exploit the contractor status of the workers to drive profits at the cost of workers’ independence: how much money are these drivers really making after you factor in the costs of health and car insurance as well as gas?

Photo by user Scott L

Photo by user Scott L

Uber and Lyft have spent millions of dollars in legal fees fighting to maintain the contractor work force that lies at the foundation of their business model. Last year, the California Labor Commission ruled that an Uber driver is an employee; Uber immediately appealed the decision because it owed the plaintiff what would have been a salary. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California courts soon took over the case and continually rejected the company’s request to delay the trial until after the appeal was decided. Lyft recently settled an almost identical case for $12.25 million. Start-up companies continue to subdue the rights of their workers in many ways, but as protests endure, solutions are necessary. In Dallas, drivers for UberBlack, the company’s high-end car service, received an email informing them that they would be expected to start picking up passengers on UberX, the company’s low-cost option. The next day, drivers coordinated to surround Uber’s Dallas headquarters to protest the policy change, since many of them had taken out large loans to lease luxury vehicles. After three tense days of negotiation, Uber allowed the drivers to opt of the proposed policy. Concurrently, Uber drivers in Tampa, Florida, initiated a weekly logout in which a coalition of drivers go offline for an hour or two during peak periods in an attempt to use Uber’s customers as a vehicle for reform.

Consumers may also be pleased with the advent of self-driving cars, particularly given the recent tragedy in Kalamazoo, Michigan. John Dalton was a family man in a small town who had no prior charges on record, and he was working as an Uber driver to earn some extra money. On Saturday, February 20, 2016, Dalton was picking up passengers as usual until something triggered a rampage. He was charged with six counts of murder, two counts of assault with intent to commit murder, and eight firearms violations. In another tragic case, Syed Muzaffer, an Uber driver who had been previously convicted for reckless driving, killed a six-year-old girl in San Francisco and injured the girl’s mother as they walked across a residential street on New Year’s Eve. These incidents are not the only examples of passengers experiencing harm and others have felt threatened or alarmed by a contracted driver. The security of passengers is a top concern for those in the ride-sharing industry, but even by conducting background checks on every driver, it is impossible to scrutinize each applicant. It is a substantial rationale for ride-hailing services to switch to autonomous vehicles.

Self-driving cars will benefit ride-sharing companies, who will not have to spend millions in legal fees on the incessant debate over whether workers are employees or contractors, and the companies will be able to expand their customer base. A recurring criticism of services like Uber is their lack of presence in suburban and rural areas. It makes sense as not as many people are requesting rides in these areas; without reliable fares, it is not worth the drivers’s time. As manufacturers begin to produce self-driving cars that are also more energy efficient, rides will be available at nearly all hours of the day.

Driverless cars will eliminate many problems in transportation and beyond. Although they are relatively new, ride-sharing companies such as Uber and Lyft, along with industry veterans like General Motors, will lead the way in implementing this transformative technology, and we should not stop them. Drivers are consistently subject to preposterous regulations and policy changes with little benefits to show for their resilience. Although drivers do deserve to win their current fight for employee status, the introduction of autonomous vehicles will help improve conditions for both drivers and companies.