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The robo-cars are here.
No, I'm not referring to the latest Michael Bay-directed Transformers trainwreck. I'm talking Uber's newly launched fleet of self-driving cars, which debuted on the streets of Pittsburgh this last week.
But wait? Is this the same Uber that made a name for itself by paying ordinary folks like you and me to play taxi driver? It is, but, in a way, the move from human drivers to robots has been in the works for some time now. At least for the last two years.
As far back as 2014, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick revealed that this was the true endgame for the pioneer ridesharing company:
"[T]he reason Uber [is] expensive is because you're not just paying for the car, you're paying for the other dude in the car. And so, when there's no other dude in the car, the cost of taking an Uber anywhere becomes cheaper than owning a vehicle ... And of course that means safer rides, that means more environmentally friendly, that means a lot of things."
In the meantime, other companies had been trying to crack the self-driving car nut, including, and perhaps most famously, Google itself, which had been testing its self-driving cars on California roads. Google's model had trouble when one vehicle crashed into a bus. Then, earlier this year, electric car company Tesla's foray into self-driving cars was marred when one of its vehicles crashed and killed its passenger while in autopilot mode.
Clearly, some bugs remain to be worked out in self-driving cars as a whole, so why is Uber rushing into converting their fleet into self-driving cars? The short answer: necessity (see below).
Needless to say, if Uber's beta test in Pittsburgh is successful, you might soon see a fleet of driverless vehicles in your metro area. But are they safe? How close are they to becoming a reality? And does this mean that you and your Uber driver will no longer have to go through the awkward process of exchanging star ratings?
Here are the five biggest things you need to know before Uber's self-driving fleet shows up in your town:
1. They are on the road now
Yes, Uber has wasted no time in getting its driverless cars onto real roads officially launching its pilot program on Sep. 14, 2016. But before you get too paranoid in traffic, or worry that a robo-car is going to drive too slow in the fast lane, know that you aren't likely going to be even near one for a while. Unless you're in Pittsburgh, it might be a few months or even years before you see one in the lane next to you.
2. They're not completely robotic yet
According to early reports, getting a self-driving Uber ride is a lot like getting a traditional Uber ride. You still use the app to hail a ride. And there's still another person in the car. But these cars also come equipped with more than 20 cameras and sensors, and those people are an engineer and a safety driver. You input your destination and the car does the driving, but the safety driver is there to intervene if anything goes awry.
But how often does the safety driver have to jump into action? Mike Isaac, a NY Times writer who got try out Uber's self-driving ride, recounts:
"At various moments, [the safety driver] had to take over the wheel and turn through intersections where locals are known to speed. When a truck driver backed out into the road illegally, he put his foot on the brake, immediately taking control of the car. If the safety engineer felt unsafe, he could at any time smack down a big red button in the center console-suspiciously similar to a seat ejector switch from a James Bond film-to disengage from self-driving mode ... If I felt unsafe as a passenger, I could also request that the driver take over the vehicle, or press a button on a screen facing the back seat that would end the ride."
So in truth, the current flock of "self-driving" Uber cars in Pittsburgh are not really self-driving. But this isn't a bad thing. When testing any new technology, especially something as potentially dangerous as a car, it's wise to have a human who can pull the plug at any moment. This should also put to rest any fears from passengers, other drivers, or pedestrians in the vicinity.
"[F]or most of the ride," reports Isaac, "I felt safe."
For the moment, it seems, a robopocalypse in Pittsburgh is unlikely.
3. Uber's human drivers are likely on the way out
The most immediate danger from Uber's new self-driving fleet is to the livelihoods of their current drivers. As mentioned previously, self-driving cars were always in the plan for Uber. But a slew of lawsuits from Uber drivers demanding employee benefits may have been expediting these plans.
Lawsuits in California and Massachusetts had already cost Uber $84 million to settle. More were sure to follow. But the real problem would've been the healthcare and other benefits they would've been forced to pay if Uber drivers were deemed employees in a court of law. These costs would've been enough to destroy Uber's soaring profits, as seen in this chart produced by Fortune:
In a very real way, these costs made self-driving cars a matter of survival for Uber.
Kalanick echoed this reluctantly but bluntly, "Look, this is the way the world is going. The world isn't always great."
4. They will likely be safer (eventually)
The lofty goal of self-driving (other than profits) has always been to make driving safer, in addition to reducing traffic congestion and the need for parking. The fatal Tesla accident and the Google crash may highlight the current challenges and dangers of self-driving cars, but nearly all experts agree that this technology will inevitably become safer than human-driven vehicles.
In fact, they might already be a little too safe, according to Isaac:
"My driverless Uber stopped far behind cars in front of us at intersections. It stayed exactly at the speed limit - 25 miles per hour where we drove - even when there was no traffic around. At one stoplight, the car waited for the green signal before turning right. The human drivers behind us were not pleased."
The pro here: once self-driving cars take over the road, you can say goodbye to accidents and traffic jams caused by accidents.
The con: you might still be late from all the self-driving cars traveling five miles under the speed limit.
5. It's going to be slow going
For those getting a little freaked out by the previous four points, fear not. All of the above is going to take some time to come to fruition. This is due not just to technological constraints, but to legal, cultural, and financial barriers as well.
"A lot still has to happen before Uber drivers become completely obsolete," says Johana Bhuijan at Recode. "Such as: Self-driving cars have to become legal to drive without a safety driver; users will have to want to get in a self-driving Uber; and, perhaps most importantly, Uber will have to buy and trick out enough cars with self-driving technology to make it worth the investment."
Other concerns will be what extremely safe self-driving cars could do to the rights of flawed humans to pilot their own cars. When states see how much safer driverless cars are, will they take humans out of the driver's seat altogether? Will there even be a driver's seat anymore? Will off-roading be outlawed?
Yes, there are still a ton of questions to be answered before our robo-drivers take the wheel for good.