The last 18 months have not gone well for Uber, and early in March things took another tumultuous turn when one of their self-driving vehicles struck and killed a woman in Tempe, Arizona. The incident rocked the company and has resulted in Uber halting all of their self-driving cars across all cities including San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Phoenix, Tempe, and Toronto.
This unfortunate event leads us to ask the questions: What is the state of self-driving cars? Are they coming soon? Are they safe? And, how will they affect Rideshare drivers and Taxi drivers?
We took a look at the autonomous car landscape to see if we can answer some of the most pressing questions on the minds of rideshare drivers and passengers including:
- Who is making self-driving cars?
- How far are we away from self-driving cars?
- What states allow self-driving cars?
- How safe are self-driving cars?
- How will self-driving effect rideshare drivers?
Let’s dive in.
What are autonomous cars?
Easy question to answer right?
Not so much. You see, there are various levels of “autonomous cars” and companies are developing technology to tackle each one of them.
Brian Solis, a principal analyst of Altimeter, has defined autonomous cars as follows:
Picture Via: The Race to 2021: The State of Autonomous Vehicles and a “Who’s Who” of Industry Drivers
Most cars are still at Level 2, where drivers are still in full control of the car, have their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road, however, have some sort of cruise control functionality enabled. Many automakers are promising to move from Level 2 all the way to Level 5 by the end of 2021.
In fact, you can see a list of automakers that have made significant progress toward a fully autonomous car and are said to be on pace to reach their goals by 2021 below:
– Uber (in partnership with Volvo)
– Lyft (in partnership with General Motors and Ford)
– Google’s Waymo
How will autonomous cars be used?
To a rideshare driver and the public, one of the most lucrative markets for an autonomous car would seem to be taxi services, however, there are many use cases for these vehicles.
According to Brian Solis, there are 5 main categories for autonomous cars with multiple use cases within each category
- Mass Transit
- Task driven
- Retail delivery
While the use cases for a taxi like service is more visible, use cases such as trucking, parcel delivery, and shuttles have seen more traction. For instance, in Europe and Asia, there are many hospitals, airports, and university campuses that use a service called Navya instead of standard shuttle buses.
What Legal Hurdles Stand in The Way?
As of today, there are 21 states that have passed some sort of legislation allowing autonomous cars in some form or fashion.
See a map below from the National Conference of State Legislators:
Last September Congress also passed the SELF DRIVE Act, which lays out a basic federal framework for autonomous vehicle regulation, signaling that federal lawmakers are finally ready to think seriously about self-driving cars and what they mean for the future of the country.
Now I know what you’re thinking, disruptive technology companies have famously done a lousy job working with regulators across the globe. Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, and other tech giants have had their fair share of public court cases, however, automobile manufacturers, more than anyone else, have a reputation for working closely with the government to understand (and potentially shape) regulations and compliance.
Given automobile makers willingness to work with legislators along with Congress’s new found interest in the self-driving car industry, it appears that regulation for these vehicles will be worked out.
How safe are autonomous cars?
One of the largest hurdles that any company will need to jump over will be ensuring autonomous cars are safe, which is why Uber’s incident in Arizona was such a big deal.
Since then, Arizona has suspended Uber’s autonomous car program for the time being, even after Uber had voluntarily pulled its autonomous cars from the road and every autonomous car maker is having to answer questions about safety in their cars.
Lyft’s cofounder and CEO John Zimmer was quoted as saying “I don’t know all the specifics. I did see the video. It did look like both the tech and the driver could have or should have prevented that. But I don’t know all the details,” while also stating that “We need to make sure that all players are acting responsibly because, again, the goal is to actually make it a safer opportunity for people.”
What’s important to note in this statement is that the goal of autonomous cars is to make driving significantly safer for pedestrians and drivers alike.
While the accident in Arizona was tragic and a catastrophic blow for Uber’s self driving initiatives, it is worth noting that this was just the first instance of fully autonomous car resulting in a pedestrian fatality while more than 6,000 pedestrians were killed in accidents involving human drivers in just 2016. So while the self driving car industry is appropriately being scrutinized for it’s failure, these cars so far are significantly safer than human driven cars in many circumstances.
What does all this mean for rideshare drivers?
For rideshare drivers, the most important thing to understand is that the world isn’t just going to flip a switch and be completely autonomous. We are still 4-5 years away from autonomous cars being available to consumers, and even then, we could be 20+ years away from autonomous cars being the standard.
Just last year, Lyft’s Vice President of Engineering Luc Vincent stated that the company would “always operate a hybrid network, with rides from both human-driven and self-driving cars.” He added that “When a passenger requests a ride that a self-driving car can complete, we may send one to complete the trip,” he also stated that “If that person needs to go somewhere self-driving cars are unable to navigate, or their needs call for a different level of service, they will have a driver. But in either event, we’ll make sure everyone can get where they need to go.”
Here, Vincent is talking about cases where human interaction is still vital. Philipp Kampshoff of the consulting firm McKinsey & Co noted a prime example of a use case that is extremely difficult to automate. “Another example is a construction site where you have a red traffic light, and the autonomous vehicle is approaching the red traffic light, but there is a construction worker who waves the people and cars through. How does the autonomous vehicle know that it can ignore the red traffic light? So these are the kinds of edge cases that have to be overcome for autonomous vehicles to really be out there in mass adoption.”
Because of these fringe cases, we believe that there will always be a place for a driver behind the wheel, however, autonomous cars may make for additional opportunities for rideshare drivers as Lyft’s Director of Product Taggart Matthiesen alluded to in a conversation with Recode from last August.
“As far as I’m concerned, they will (human drivers) continue to be that. Over time, technology will give us the opportunity to provide additional services on our platform, whether that is a concierge service, whether that is an in-vehicle experience … these are all things that we will slowly evolve and work with our drivers on.”
Here, Taggart is referring to the ability for drivers in vehicles to act as operators or even a concierge service for the cars instead of drivers. This is similar to how the trucking industry views the role of drivers.
Taggert later added “If I need to go to the doctor’s office and my leg is in a cast and I can’t drive, we have a service for that,” he said. “If you get into the world of autonomous, we may need someone in that vehicle to help that person. There are things we’re doing beyond getting a passenger from point A to point B, additional services that we as a company can look at.”
There may be even more opportunity for rideshare drivers to become operators of their own fleet of autonomous cars. This would be similar to Turo’s model where drivers simply rent out their autonomous cars to the Uber’s and Lyft’s of the world and take home some fee as they sit at home. Drivers would just need to keep the vehicles well maintained.
Don’t Worry, But Stay Vigilant
We are far from a seeing the current rideshare model make any significant amount of changes, so you don’t need to worry about a robot car overtaking you as a rideshare driver any time soon. However, drivers do need to stay Vigilant about emerging trends and technologies so you can see what’s coming and *take advantage of opportunities*.