As we are all way too familiar, Uber is my generations favorite mode of transportation. The cars come on demand, the app provides pricing transparency and there is no hassle with payment on arrival. While I personally appreciate these innovations, such as uberPool which makes living in a city without a car vastly more affordable or uberEats which delivers exactly what I am craving to my door, I can also admire what the company has done to empower the individual driver that can now run his or her own entrepreneurial business. However, this positive sentiment may turn sour as Uber propels itself forward along the digitization curve all the way to self-driving cars.
Earlier this fall, Uber launched a fleet of self-driving cars in Pittsburg, home of the headquarters of the Uber Advanced Technologies Campus which was established after the hiring of dozens of researchers from the Carnegie Mellon University’s robotics department.1 These cars are largely used for experimentation at the moment, still requiring a human car “handler”, to gather data on the plethora of “unexpected incidences that occur during a routine drive”1 as well as the societal reaction of engaging with self-driving cars.
Uber is not alone in its quest to further disrupt an industry recently jolted by technological advancement. Familiar names such as Tesla, Google, Toyota, Honda and Apple3 are all also furiously investing significant time and money in the quest to be the first-mover in this futuristic space. While science fiction movies have already prepared us to believe self-driving cars will be a part of our future and studies indicate they have the ability to decrease accidents and increase fuel efficiency, I remain skeptical about the net impact they will have on society. Two concerns remain top of mind as I consider the challenges this technological leap forward will have on Uber and the others: security and job destruction.
Security: Self-driving cars would inevitably be susceptible to hacking which could pose a threat to sought-after targets as well as those around them during cyberattacks. “Last year, security experts proved in a controlled test that they could use the Internet to take control of a car as it was driven down the road. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles consequently recalled 1.4 million vehicles to fix the software defect enabling hackers to control multiple vehicle functions.”2 In addition, “the U.S. Justice Department has formed a threat analysis team to study potential national security challenges posed by self-driving cars, medical devices and other Internet-connected tools.”3 Companies such as Uber and its peers will need to constantly invest in advancing the security of their technology platforms in order to stay one step ahead of hackers.
Job destruction: Another challenge these companies will face is public outcry and potential government regulations related to the inevitable loss of livelihood for drivers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are approximately 178,000 people employed as taxi drivers or chauffeurs in the United States. But driverless technology advances will not stop there – all professional drivers may become unnecessary. These other professions include bus drivers, delivery service drivers, postal service mail carriers and truck drivers (the most common job in 29 states). Each of these professions employ more people and are better paid than taxi drivers, as shown below.4
Yes, technological advancement has heretofore propelled our country to significant economic growth. And labor theory will tell you that “robots taking human jobs means that those humans can spend their time doing higher-valued work that will drive even more progress.”5 This is where I scratch my head a bit because what other “higher-valued” work will these drivers be qualified to do? The same economic labor theory applied to many areas of the country dependent on auto manufacturing jobs that have been decimated by the movement towards outsourcing. Unfortunately, other “higher-valued” jobs have not replaced the lost jobs in these communities. A feeling of disenfranchisement and frustration has ensued and likely played a role in the election results, where a wave of people that normally do not vote came out to vote for Trump based on his acknowledgment of their situation.
Can Uber and others blindly ignore these significant risks when barreling down the technology highway? Self-driving cars are expected to be a reality by 2020 – but do we really want them?
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