Automated Cars: What They Mean for the Ridesharing Industry and Beyond

With Uber’s self-driving cars now hitting the streets in places like Pittsburgh for testing purposes, many are asking what that means for the future of the rideshare industry. First, companies like Uber and Lyft disrupted the taxi industry and now it seems like they’re on a mission to even put their own drivers out of business.

However, Uber doesn’t see it that way.

In a joint statement on the Uber blog, Vice-President of Self-Driving Technology Anthony Levandowski and Uber CEO Travis Kalanick say they expect the future of the company to feature a mixture of self-driving vehicles and people-driven vehicles.

“This is because of the limits of self-driving software and the skyrocketing demand for better transportation, which people-powered transport is uniquely able to solve,” Levandowski and Kalanick say in a blog post.

The two liken self-driving technology to the ATM, which was expected to put bank tellers out of jobs when it first arrived, but instead made running a bank so easy and affordable that many small banks ended up opening more locations and employing more people.

Because Uber’s self-driving cars will be on the road 24/7, they will require much more maintenance than cars driven by people, the pair say, and that maintenance will obviously involve employing people to perform it.

Automated Cars Not Fully Autonomous Yet

For the time being and the foreseeable future, Uber’s self-driving cars will have an engineer in the front passenger seat to analyze all the data the car collects and to take over and drive if necessary.

While it is Uber’s goal to get the engineer out of the car altogether, in this initial stage of testing, they are necessary to keep an eye on the plethora of data being given to the car from the array of sensors on its roof. They also need  to make sure the car is responding to that data appropriately, like making sure the car knows about and reacts accordingly to a pedestrian crossing the street ahead.

Passengers also get a view of what the car “sees” via a tablet positioned in the back seat that shows objects around the car, like other vehicles on the road, pedestrians and whatever else is around the car.

“We’re working towards developing a transparent experience that provides riders with enough information about the trip and the vehicle system to feel safe and confident,” Emily Bartel, a product manager at Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center in Pittsburgh told Wired magazine.

The tablet provides passengers with an indicator of whether the car is in autonomous or person-driven mode, its speed, the steering angle, the braking, how many miles it has driven on its own, how much time is left in your trip, plus a map showing your route. There is also a “request stop” button if you want to stop before you reach your scheduled destination.

The Future of Rideshare According to Lyft’s Top Man

While Uber has already launched its self-driving cars test program, its largest competitor, Lyft, is finalizing its plans for launching its automated vehicle service.

Lyft president John Zimmer recently told the Wall Street Journal’s WSJDLive conference that almost the company’s entire fleet could be automated within the next five years and could run on a subscription model, much like how people stream music on services like Spotify.

As for logistics, Zimmer told Quartz magazine that he envisions geomapping cities and having certain areas where automated cars could operate, complemented by person-driven cars outside of those areas or when a driver is necessary.

Zimmer says he doesn’t believe autonomous cars will take over all at once. Lyft’s plan is to slowly integrate them into its network because there are certain situations that an automated car simply can’t handle yet, such as speeds over 25 miles per hour, incredibly difficult intersections and bad weather.

But, if someone’s route is in an area where an automated car can easily handle it, Lyft would send an automated vehicle for that ride.

Zimmer also shared how he believes automated cars will become more common, saying once it has been proven they can handle simple routes effectively, they will likely get certification for that from regulators and they can then push for slightly higher speed limits and tackle the more difficult intersections, slowly getting certified for more and more driving situations.

As far as insuring self-driving cars, Zimmer says because Lyft hasn’t actually started any self-driving car routes yet, that is still up in the air.

Unlike Uber, Lyft is taking a different approach to introducing the automated cars by partnering with General Motors, which will supply the vehicles while Lyft acts as the network for putting them to work. Zimmer believes this partnership will give Lyft an edge over Uber and its other competitors.

The Lyft co-founder and president has been quoted in the past as saying he believes people-driven cars will be irrelevant by as soon as 2025 and while that would be flying in the face of over 100 years of American automotive culture, he points out that many people also didn’t believe ridesharing services would actually work and yet they are extremely common now.

Ultimately, the number one priority for Zimmer when it comes to automated cars is safety, he told Quartz.

“I think we can virtually eliminate fatalities, which is the goal, but I am 100% sure that we can reduce the number of fatalities,” he said. “And I agree with others that it would be irresponsible not to want to push for that. But then we have to wrestle with that fact that there is a computer making these decisions.”

Despite pushing for more autonomy in vehicles (both Lyft cars and in general), Zimmer sees the self-driving cars as a way of making the future more human because people won’t have to spend so much time driving and can spend it interacting with other people in vehicles where the seats don’t all face the same way.

And while Zimmer is excited about the possibility of a future where people spend less time driving and more time interacting, he did admit that he’s unsure how Lyft’s actual drivers themselves will be impacted as the company and others like it move toward total automation.

He also believes fewer people will opt for vehicle ownership in the future, which will mean cities themselves will change.

Changing Cityscapes

One of the expected impacts is that self-driving cars will have on the country and world is the disappearance of parking lots across the country.

Illinois Institute of Technology architecture professor Marshall Brown has prognosticated that self-driving cars coupled with the declining appeal of vehicle ownership will affect parking lot and parking garage operators, as well as developers, property investors, city planners, architects and municipal governments, as fewer vehicles are expected to be on the roads in the future.

In fact, Crain’s Chicago Business newspaper reports that California-based research firm Green Street Advisors has estimated that the United States could lose up to half of its current parking lots within the next 30 years.

Crain’s reported that would mean 75 billion square feet of parking space could be eliminated, which is more than the combined area of all apartment buildings, office buildings, shopping malls, strip malls and warehouses in the entire country.

“The rise of ride hailing and the pending arrival of driverless cars will combine to be the biggest change in real estate in some time, maybe since the arrival of the auto itself,” Crain’s quotes Green Street managing director Dave Bragg, as saying.

The Other Side

While the future of automated vehicles is exciting for some, others are making bold predictions in the other direction about how driverless cars will affect the future, with TechCrunch’s Tony Aube even going so far as to suggest that driving may become illegal because self-driving vehicles are so much safer than human-driven vehicles.

In addition to the potential outlawing of driving, he also opined that the technology may lead to more surveillance of the public, pointing to the increasing number of dashboard cameras in use overseas and in the US. He said with automated cars being equipped with sensors and cameras to be aware of their surroundings, that would mean more cameras to keep an eye on the general public.

Of course, automated cars also mean the loss of possibly millions of jobs, Aube says. Taxi drivers, bus drivers, truckers and even traffic cops would all find themselves out of work in a completely automated future.

“In the US, there are 3.5 million professional truck drivers, in addition to the 665,000 bus drivers, 240,000 taxi drivers and the many Uber and Lyft drivers,” Aube says. “All those jobs will ultimately be replaced by self-driving cars.”

The loss of these jobs, of course, will also affect the entire economy, changing it irrevocably.

From ridesharing to city planning, vehicle automation is guaranteed to touch the lives of every person in the future. The only question is, how soon will that future arrive?