Posted: Marcus Varner | November 18, 2015


Uber Drivers: Humans vs. Self-Driving Cars

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Remember how revolutionary it was when Uber first started organizing average joes into a fleet of de facto cab drivers? Riders could get cheaper fares. Commuters could make some cash on the side. Why hadn't anyone thought of this before?

Well, Uber, it turns out, isn't married to the idea. Not if it's human drivers, anyway.

This summer, the tea leaves started to turn against Uber. In June, the California labor board ruled that Uber drivers, who had been treated as contractors, should actually be classified as employees and need to be treated as such by the company. This would mean that Uber would have to start paying for insurance, auto maintenance, etc.-costs that would run about $5,500 per driver per year, according to a NerdWallet study... and probably make the company unprofitable.

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Naturally, this has Uber not feeling so great about their human workforce.

Which might explain why Uber is suddenly positioning itself-not Google, Tesla, or Apple?-as a leader in the field of self-driving cars. [Note: Google does have a 7% ownership in Uber, so maybe no offense is taken] Earlier this year, Uber opened its very own lab just for developing self-driving cars. Their executives started dropping comments here and there, speaking optimistically about the possibilities of self-driving cars.

And then came Uber CEO Travis Kalanick's bold address at a September conference:

"The best thing is to be in a place with optimistic leadership when interesting things happen with driverless cars so that we can help with that transition. In 10 to 15 years there will need to be leadership in cities and with the companies that make this technology to make that transition, and that's an interesting challenge and opportunity."

Kalanick would then go on to claim that self-driving cars, in conjunction with "centrally controlled, algorithmic traffic management systems," could reduce the 30,000 annual traffic-related fatalities in the U.S. Then as if it weren't already clear, Kalanick told the audience that, yes, self-driving cars would indeed be part of Uber's future plans.

Obviously, Uber drivers are going to be looking for other gigs soon, but what would this develop mean for consumers like me and you? Are we better off with the flesh-and-blood Uber drivers of today or with robots at the wheel?


If you've watched any of the Terminator movies or Star Trek or (insert sci fi franchise here) you know that humans have some distinct weaknesses and strengths when compared to robots. We break rules, which can be a strength or a weakness. We're better at reading the nuances of a situation and making snap judgments-not always the right ones. We're better at reading human verbal and nonverbal cues, which is a strength. But we're also emotional, which can result in some bad, irrational, even dangerous behavior. These differences create some pretty distinct pros and cons for human drivers and self-driving cars alike.

Human drivers will get you there faster

If you've ever ridden with a real cab driver in a big, traffic-congested city like New York, you know what I'm talking about. You need to get across town in ten minutes, and you look at the snarled traffic around and think, "There's no way I'm getting there in ten minutes."

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But then your driver makes the impossible happen. At some points grossly exceeding the speed limit. At others flying out into traffic with reckless abandon. This might be motivated by their very human desire to impress or their pride in their craft. Are they breaking dozens of traffic laws and probably putting you and others in danger? Yes. Do they ultimately deliver what you asked for? Yes.

And then there's the self-driving car. Early tests show Google's self-driving cars' speed is capped at 25 mph. One even got pulled over recently for obstructing traffic by driving ten miles under the speed limit. Safe? Yes, in terms of speed. Do you want to take a self-driving car when you're running late for your big meeting? Probably not.

Human drivers can turn mean, scary, and violent

While the vast majority of Uber drivers are decent, law-abiding folks, some disturbing stories have made their way into the news. In 2014, for example, one rider was left stranded when her driver was suddenly arrested. Unfortunately, many Uber infractions aren't so funny, including verbal abuse, robbery, battery, sexual assault, stalking, and more.

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Could self-driving cars do this to us? Not likely. For the time being, robots that attack people remain in the realm of science fiction. Of course, there's always the possibility of a glitch causing a car to drive erratically, even dangerously. But it's safe to say, until the big Robopocalypse hits, self-driving cars are extremely unlikely to verbally abuse or accost their passengers.

Human drivers are difficult to evaluate

In Chase Sagum's article, "Uber's Two-Way Reviews: a Game-Changer for Companies and Customers?," he recounts all the ways that the company's two-way review system (driver reviews passenger, passengers review drivers) produces totally unreliable reviews. A big part of the problem is that drivers don't want to give bad reviews, even if they're completely justified, out of fear of getting a bad review back from vindictive passengers. What results is that it's almost impossible to know for sure if an Uber driver or passenger is actually good or bad.

With self-driving cars, performance metrics would likely be kept by the car itself, and cameras would keep an eye on passengers, providing a much more reliable record of how good or bad drivers and passengers have been.

Self-driving cars will take away jobs

In his address, Kalanick touted the economic benefits of self-driving cars with this dubious reasoning:

"That's giving an hour of time back to every citizen every day. Give that hour to your family, to your community. Time is a luxury. Fewer cars, less congestion, more parking, less pollution and creating thousands of jobs."

Of course, he managed to skirt the issue of what exactly would happen to all those Uber drivers once they lost their jobs to robots.

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Currently, Uber drivers are able to earn a significant income doing it part- or full-time. This is extra income to pay the bills, put savings away, or spend in their local economies. It's nearly impossible to imagine what would happen to these households or their local economies if that income suddenly went away.

Will all those jobs and incomes lost by Uber drivers and taxi drivers to self-driving cars really be replaced by jobs connected to the self-driving car industry, maintenance, for example? After all, one mechanic can maintain at least a couple dozen vehicles at a time. It's unlikely that other jobs and income will rise up to replace what would be lost.

Self-driving cars' programming might actually cause accidents

So far a few dozen self-driving cars have been tested on roads and highways, but the number of self-driving cars on the road is expected to climb to 75% by 2040, according to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. With so many on the road, will their accident-avoidance programming hold up?

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Kylie Mohr of NPR's All Tech Considered hypothesizes:

"Imagine, for example, a deer is standing in your lane. No cars are approaching. A defensive driver would probably slow down and go around it, encroaching into the other lane. But an automated car, following the law to a T, might come to a full stop - and avoid crossing a double-yellow line. Envision the pileup that might ensue."

Or what if in an accident, she continues, a car must choose between minimizing loss of life or protecting riders? How would programmers choose which directive the car would pursue?

Self-driving cars would be cheaper

One of the most prominent complaints about Uber drivers is the unexpectedly high fares they charge. This wouldn't be a problem with self-driving cars.

Self-driving cars don't need to pay for food, cable, their kids' college fund, etc. They don't demand insurance or paid time off. This is undoubtedly why Uber is interested in them. Passengers surely won't mind either.

Self-driving cars will be subject to glitches and hacks

Computers have been around for some time now and, as much as we've built up walls to keep our software from malfunctioning or being broken into, those threats seem more prevalent than ever. Since self-driving cars would essentially just be computers driving cars, these automobiles would be subject to the same dangers.

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Mistakes would be made in coding these programs. It's inevitable. With today's partially computerized automobiles, we know what happens when a single mechanism in a car-say one designed to shut down your car when the key is removed-doesn't work properly. One can only imagine what would happen if the brain operating your entire car broke.

And what about hackers? Hackers have found ways to break into mobile phones and home computers; they would surely find reasons to break into the operating systems of self-driving cars. What damage could they do if they gained control of a vehicle you were riding in? They could easily steal it, use it as a weapon, or use it to hold its riders for ransom.

Are we better off with human drivers?

The fact of the matter is, there are still so many unanswered questions when it comes to our future with self-driving cars. One thing that is for sure is that some of the biggest innovators on the planet-including Uber-are trying to make them a part of our everyday lives. If futurist dreams and pocketbooks win the day, self-driving cars will likely replace Uber's drivers-and most other human drivers-sooner than we think.

To see how Uber is ranked by real customers compared to Lyft and other car-sharing services, visit our Car Sharing Reviews page today!


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Written by Marcus Varner

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