Image: The Economist via Fordham Urban Law Journal

 

Everybody loves Uber and LYFT, it seems, except taxi drivers. Violence has sometimes erupted over the cheap and social media-friendly—but unlicensed—services:

Toronto taxi driver dragged down street after confronting suspected Uber driver during massive protests

‘I was mad at the time’: Toronto taxi driver on why he clung to moving Uber car at protest

But is this just a typical case of upstarts busting a monopoly? Some think there’s more to come. From Mashable:

Lyft announced Monday that it has partnered with automotive giant General Motors to create a network of self-driving cars that will one day in the distant (or not-too-distant future) be able to pick up and drop off passengers at the touch of a button on our phones — and likely put many of its drivers out of work.

“It makes me feel like they don’t care about the people who work for them on the road, which is surprising when it comes to Lyft,” Lara [a single mom] says. After digesting the news, she’s feeling more “undecided” about continuing to work with the company.

Lara’s concerns highlight the delicate balance that Lyft, which calls itself the “friendly” ride-hailing company, and its billion-dollar competitors must strike as they simultaneously tout their innovative plans for the future — a future that may not involve drivers — while courting the thousands and thousands of drivers needed to work with them now.

As the Rideshare Guy complains, the taxi-busting industry is a seller’s market for the many competent drivers (like Lara) who find themselves unemployed in a sluggish, rapidly automating economy:

On Friday afternoon, Uber posted an article on their blog and let some media outlets know that they would be cutting rates in 100 cities in the US and Canada. In true Uber fashion, they made the announcement after business hours on a Friday and didn’t even e-mail drivers about it.

Now, about the self-driving car: As noted in an earlier post, artificial intelligence is not going to kill all jobs. If the same routine recurs hundreds of thousands of times, the job can likely be automated. But most professionals, craft workers, marketers, etc. constantly create information while working.

Okay, market expectations for the self-driving car are big, with Toyota coming on stream in the 2020 model year. Uber cars are expected to be driverless by 2030, rendering private car ownership obsolete.

Maybe, but obvious problems arise:

A key problem is the region where cars are capable of autonomous operation. Consumers who want to purchase a car expect it to operate in most parts (at least all highways) of the country or ideally the whole continent, and preferably in all non-extreme weather situations. This is a tall order! Detailed maps need to be created and maintained; algorithms need to support more than dry weather and light rain but also snow and heavy rain.

For auto manufacturer this means that solutions need to be found that essentially work on the entire planet. The structure of the maps needs to be defined and then the maps themselves need to be collected. This will be a major task because the maps need to be much more detailed than the conventional street maps currently being maintained by Google, Apple, TomTom, Nokia Here and others. It is not yet clear what the best structure for such a map is (and nobody has even started to address the problem of how to navigate in snow-covered areas which may in turn have implications on the mapping approach). Therefore a significant lead time will be necessary before an auto manufacturer can release models to the market that are capable of driving autonomously in most parts of a country or even continent.

In real life, the service will probably work the same way as a streetcar does, but with more flexibility as to routes.

There’s a bigger issue lurking underneath. For most of its existence, the automobile has stood for personal independence.

A friend who works in a government office in a small Canadian city told me recently that most of the older married women there spend nearly half their income after-tax on their cars. They just so desperately want the independence of “her” car that they are willing to make that sacrifice of time and trouble.

My guess is that even if we offered to hire them all chauffeurs, they would prefer to drive themselves. That’s the part that gives me pause for thought about the driverless car’s future.

It’s true that millennials are less likely than in years past to own a car. But then they are also much more likely to be living with their parents, due to a sluggish job market. Does the latest in Cool just mean making a virtue of necessity?

We’ll see. On a lighter note, many things in life would lose their value if automated. The dumbest idea in history may have been Hasbro’s robotic cat for seniors:

Aside from its four C batteries and lifeless gaze, the cats are pretty realistic, with faux feline fur that comes in “orange tabby,” “silver,” and “creamy white,” and automated “cat-like” movements.

Lifeless gaze? In other words, like a dead cat that moves.

I’m going to wait and see what really happens in the “auto” markets in general.

See also:People seem to be turning against the i[can’t]Carebots—robot caregivers for the elderly

 

Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...