|I visited San Francisco recently and, unsurprisingly, took an Uber from the airport to my final destination. On the drive, we had a standard passenger-driver conversation: where we were from, how long had he been driving Uber, when was the last time I had been to the city. It took me by surprise to learn that my driver lived in Sacramento, California’s capital city located an hour and a half northeast of San Francisco.|
|By Julianna Tschirhart|
He drove for Uber in the city five days a week and went back to his home and family on weekends. He was able to afford a house with land in Sacramento—in SF he would be lucky to afford a studio apartment. He had been at this rigorous schedule for a few months now. Due to the steep streets of San Francisco, he had to get his brakes replaced every month.
I was amazed. There was an entire fleet of migrants workers that had sprung up to meet the demand for ridesharing. How many other people lived a similarly nomadic existence?
According to reports, there are an estimated 45,000 Uber and Lyft drivers working in San Francisco. There is growing concern that the sheer number of these drivers are contributing to traffic, and becoming a hindrance to the mobility they are offering up to passengers. According to the San Francisco Police, nearly two-thirds of the tickets issued to drivers downtown are to Uber and Lyft operators.
It is clear that our laws and our public spaces have not caught up to the reality of ridesharing. How much more complex does the issue become when we factor in the push toward autonomous vehicles?
At the NAIAS this year, the key benefit provided by autonomous vehicles was treated almost as an afterthought: safety. Traffic fatalities in the United States continue to be staggering. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 35,092 people were killed in traffic accidents in 2015, a 7.2 percent increase from 2014.
The possibility of eliminating human error in the driving equation via autonomous vehicles is attractive. But the topic of safety isn’t sexy. So benefits such as efficiency, productivity, and the sleek power of technology are touted instead. At the Auto Show, the discussion of autonomous vehicles, and the communication and security technology that goes along with them, felt akin to the rush for Americans to “settle” the west—companies wanting to be the first.
And the race is indeed on. General Motors announced that they will make an autonomous car without a steering wheel or brake pedals by 2019. Ford plans to produce a fully-autonomous vehicle by 2021. Uber’s self-driving vehicle pilot program reached 2 million miles in December. Lyft offered rides to passengers attending the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week in semi-autonomous BMWs. Tesla, Apple, and Google are also working hard to be the first to perfect the fully-autonomous vehicle.
Still, the key message I received during Press Week at the Auto Show is that the self-driving timeline is very uncertain. Legislation, infrastructure, and certainty in the safety of the technology are not there yet. Additionally, companies aren’t sure whether the self-driving model will be geared toward personal vehicle ownership or ridesharing.
While I don’t dispute the potential benefits posed by autonomous vehicles, such as fewer traffic fatalities, I have to keep the potential challenges in mind as well. NAIAS featured speakers such as Ray Tanguay, Automotive Advisor to the Governments of Ontario and Canada, and Christopher Ciuca, Director of Pre-Professional Education at SAE International, discussing plans to educate students in STEM careers, but my mind kept returning to my Uber driver in San Francisco.
What about the workers that are rendered obsolete by automation? A 2017 report by the U.S. Dept. of Commerce indicated that there were 3.8 million motor vehicle operators in the United States in 2015. This doesn’t include the Uber and Lyft drivers that drive as a second source of income. Structural unemployment is going to be a serious issue if we don’t design solutions to allow older workers to reenter the workforce when their jobs are replaced by automation.
I also wonder about public transit. If autonomous ridesharing becomes the preferred means of mobility, will public transit be rendered obsolete? How can the public and private sector work together to ensure as many people as possible can reach their jobs, schools, and homes as affordably and easily as possible?
There is a lot left to figure out. But I’m excited to be a part of the work to do it.