This week, select Uber users in Pittsburgh — and a gaggle of reporters — became the first to hail self-driving cars through the app. Uber’s been teasing this moment for years; The New York Times reports that Pittsburgh became the ideal, if unlikely, testing ground thanks to its hands-off regulatory approach. Mayor Bill Peduto highlights his city’s rising tech hub status as a big factor. But with its steep and narrow streets and more than 440 bridges, it’s also a city with notoriously difficult driving conditions.
Journalists who took an autonomous ride reported mostly smooth experiences. A human driver is still required to sit at the wheel, and Uber’s fleet of self-driving Ford Fusions were all helmed by both a driver and an engineer on the test rides. The cars are also outfitted with 3D cameras, GPS and Lidar technology that uses lasers to assess the shape and distance of objects. Passengers had access to what the car was “seeing” via an iPad displaying the Lidar renderings in real time.
Mike Isaac, a technology reporter for The New York Times, said in a video that the ride was mostly pretty slow, and that in some cases the car was actually overly cautious. It would not take a right on red, even where it was allowed. The driver mostly kept his hands hovering over the wheel, as did Isaac when given a chance to “drive” himself. Below the clutch were two buttons: one to activate self-driving mode and another large red button to return control to the driver if at any point he felt unsafe. “But for the most part it was pretty normal,” Isaac said.
He and reporters from Reuters, Wired and elsewhere noted that their human drivers did override the self-driving mode fairly frequently during their rides. Wired’s Alexis Davies wrote that his driver took over when he wasn’t satisfied with how long the car waited before slowing for a pedestrian, and to steer around a double-parked truck he knew the car would simply have waited behind. Isaac’s driver manually braked when a car backed out illegally into the road, and took over in an intersection where locals are known to speed.
Uber now owns 100 Ford Fusions it will use for testing autonomous rides. ReCode pointed out this week they represent the first time the company has owned its own physical assets. And they also represent the first step toward something Uber has seemingly had in mind all along: the elimination of human drivers. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick predicted the rise of self-driving cars in a 2014 interview, quoted in ReCode:
“And when those bad boys are made, look, the way to think about it, the magic of self-driving vehicles, is that the reason Uber [is] expensive is because you’re not just paying for the car, you’re paying for the other dude in the car,” said Kalanick, in a moment of bare-knuckles candor. “And so, when there’s no other dude in the car the cost of taking an Uber anywhere becomes cheaper than owning a vehicle.”
When Kalanick received a barrage of negative feedback from the remarks — which seemed to show total disregard for the company’s human employees — he countered that self-driving cars likely wouldn’t be an option until 2035 at least. And to be sure, Uber has a lot more hurdles to overcome before they become ubiquitous. The company will need to invest in a much larger fleet, which will need to be approved for use without safety drivers. And as ReCode points out, “users will have to want to get in a self-driving Uber.”
In the meantime, a competitor is betting on the exact opposite strategy. Ride-hailing app Juno, which is headquartered in New York, offers a model that treats drivers as full employees, a direct response to founder Talmon Marco’s perception that Uber already treats its drivers like machines. The company “deactivates” drivers that it lets go of, for example.
“These are people — these are not machines,” Marco told NPR. “You do not deactivate people — you deactivate machines. When you say that you deactivate a person, I think that speaks volumes of the way that you actually think of these people.”
Juno’s drivers receive benefits, and half the company’s stock is set aside for them. The company takes only 10 percent in commissions, compared to its competitors’ 20 or 25 percent.
Jen Kinney is a freelance writer and documentary photographer. Her work has also appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, High Country News online, and the Anchorage Press. She is currently a student of radio production at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. See her work at jakinney.com.