Uber and the Automated Car: A Slow Unveiling of our Transportation Future – Part 1

Google's Self Driving Car Project prototype. Image courtesy of Google.

Think for a second on the advances that have been made for personal transportation since the automobile overtook horse drawn carriages and bicycles, at the turn of the 20th century. You will be hard pressed to find a technology that has permeated so many facets of every day life in such profound ways, but unlike many other technological advances, the car has remained fairly unchanged for many years. A steering wheel, a gas pedal, the introduction of the automatic transmission, on board navigation…typical stuff. And although, in the past century, we’ve seen innovation in how our cars use fuel and what fuels they consume, the list remains quite unimpressive in the face of technologies such as computers, nanotechnology, or space exploration.  Yet, the car has still managed to shape entire cities in its technological wake.

Since then, the world of transport has been in flux. There have been advancements along the way that have made our lives safer in cars and added the ability for roads to carry more vehicles at a time. Because of this, there has been pushback in some parts of the world through the resurgence of bicycle use. This has gotten to the point where, in some cities—the most notable being Amsterdam—bicycles have taken the title of prime mode of transportation.

Still, changes in transportation are visible in small glimmers, as if through the waves of heat on a sweltering summer day. You hear, for example, about Google’s work on the development of an automated car: something seemingly rooted in science fiction. You see a commercial where a car parallel parks itself. You hear about or experience on-demand ride-share services like Uber and realize that if you have the slightest opinion on this—for or against—you join a radical group of those fighting to keep it at bay, or embracing it with open arms.

These items are not the mirage on the horizon, but the pieces that make the picture whole. The future of our personal transportation is slowly changing before our eyes, and, whether you love them or hate them, Uber may just be the catalyst that brings all these technologies together in perfect synchronicity with a desire for change in our vehicular world. Uber may be the economic model that will make automated cars a viable alternative in the not so distant future. This two part series will look a the Uber, the automated car and what this may mean for our transportation future.

Car Sharing for All

First and foremost, a brief synopsis of Uber and why their business model is paradigm shifting. Uber (and it’s lesser spoken of counterpart, Lyft) are ride-sharing programs, akin in format to the wildly popular (and controversial) Airbnb. The idea is that anyone can become a driver for Uber with their own car. Once they register, they can collect their fares without the need for stringent regulation like taxi companies.

Because of this, Uber can offer an extremely fast on-demand service where a car is usually in front of you within five minutes (personal experience has it at about two to three, in Los Angeles). You enter your destination in the app on your smartphone, the rate is calculated along with the route, a driver is notified who is near you, you get in the car and travel to your destination, and upon arrival you simply exit the vehicle and go on with your day, the app directly charging your credit card. There is no cash changing hands, which is one of the many cultural and technological shifts Uber has inspired.

The beauty of this system is its simplicity. Having a car practically on hand at any time, can allow more fluidity of movement; allow a tourist to see more, allow people who don’t drive to commute through the city when walking or cycling isn’t an option (as in LA where both are done at the pedestrian/cyclists own risk). Knowing that you can have a car arrive on call virtually eliminates the worry of not having a vehicle in the first place.

A Future of Sharing

Arguing for or against the wages of Uber drivers—or the perceived economic effects ride-sharing services have on local taxi companies—are not germane to the subject at hand. What is relevant, however, is the countless articles and theories postulated about how self-driving or automated cars will have a transformative effect on our daily lives. Our economies will shift, our quality of life will shift, entire infrastructures will perish underneath new endeavours. Books that I have reviewed for Spacing, such as Start-Up City by Gabe Klein, formulate hypotheses on how the on-demand model of car sharing paired with automated vehicles will revolutionize our city streets. The problem is that currently, every day people are not making the connection between technologies like Uber and the Automated Car, and are therefore not seeing the societal value that an Uber-type system brings to the table.

This theory began in a conversation I had through comments on an article about Uber’s ongoing fight to remain in Toronto, as a user had posted that Uber will fail. This is a highly plausible event, Uber may very well fall into obscurity in the near future as a company. What cannot be unseen is the technology and digital infrastructure which it has created for the every day traveller. This societal shift has awakened something within commuters that cannot be taken back.

Think of  Netflix and Blockbuster. One may not remember that Netflix used to be a “through the mail” subscription service. Yet, in what seemed like an overnight shift, the service began streaming to our devices and suddenly Blockbuster video locations everywhere in your neighbourhood were packing up. Some websites1 are currently sounding the death knell of cable TV. A Digital Democracy Survey2 showed that “56% of the TV and film viewing by Millennials aged 14-24 is on computer, smartphone, tablet, or a gaming device — only 44% is via TV.” Numerous studies like these speak to our quickly mindset. Our entire culture is moving rapidly toward on-demand services and, for once, the automobile is coming along for the ride.

In a report by the Conference Board of Canada5 the entire “sharing economy” is laid out:

It is clear that technology has facilitated the development of more efficient ways to utilize existing resources to the benefit of wider society. Although greatly resisted by incumbent business sectors such as hotels and taxi companies, the trend [of the sharing economy] is one of continual challenge and change toward these new businesses and the resultant money flows will be significant.

Millennials are being heard on their wants and their needs, and companies like Uber and Airbnb have given rise to sharing, in order to reduce our impact on the world. While it still isn’t fully known if using Uber actually reduces your carbon footprint5, what is recognized by some like the Conference Board of Canada is that these technologies are heralding in the future of AVs or Automated Vehicles:

AVs [automated vehicles] will directly complement the argument by Uber, Lyft, etc. to deregulate the taxi industry to allow shared automated vehicle fleets to function efficiently and sustainably. The shared economy is about using fewer resources more efficiently, and AVs might be the biggest contributor to this sector. This could result in lower output for some industries, but not necessarily a net reduction in GDP because other industries may grow, as capital and labour are freed up for other uses. 

Are human drivers just another technology like Blockbuster waiting to disappear?

Next up in this two-part series we dive into the future of sharing, automation, and how Uber has created a market that will change our roadways forever.

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REFERENCES

  1. http://www.forbes.com/sites/markhughes/2015/03/21/the-millennial-trends-that-are-killing-cable/
  2. http://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/pages/technology-media-and-telecommunications/articles/digital-democracy-survey-generational-media-consumption-trends.html
  3. Streaming Reaches Flood Stage: Does Spotify Stimulate or Depress Music Sales?; Luis Aguiar, Joel Waldfogel, Oct. 2015
  4. Global Music Report 2016: State of the Industry; IFPI, http://www.ifpi.org/downloads/GMR2016-FM-Commentary.pdf
  5. Automated Vehicles: The Coming of the Next Disruptive Technology; The Conference Board of Canada, Jan. 2015

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Jeremy Senko is happily lost in the world of theoretical architecture and design. He is forever a student at heart, consistently reading, experiencing and learning about the world he inhabits. More specifically, he works as an Interior Designer in Vancouver and plays an active part in bettering the environments we live in.

3 comments

  1. This is a great topic, but I am not sure why Senko insists on reveling in the magic powers of technology to save us from our social and ecological problems. The so-called sharing economy, and the success of Uber, is based on the same model (and myth) that got people driving cars and buying large homes in the suburbs: let me make the choices I want without unnecessary regulation and public involvement. Uber is very much part of current economic thinking that seeks to capitalize on an idea of sharing. The Canadian Board of Trade can wax morally on how they are supporting an ecological model as long as “the resultant money flows will be significant.” It is also based on a few people making a lot of money, and a lot of people making a lot less money to serve the needs of a privileged class of creative workers. Public transportation is not mentioned at all in the article, which is supposedly coming to terms with a “paradigm shift” in transportation; what cities like Toronto, for example, need are not automated cars, but efficient, luxurious and affordable public transport.

    I hope the second part of this article will rely less on platitudes like “Uber will change our roadways forever,” and offer a more sober and in-depth account that addresses whose needs are being (and not being) served by all the changes in transportation.

  2. Hey Steven,

    Thanks for commenting, you raise some valid points for sure. Hopefully the second half of the article will help to clarify some of your questions/feelings toward the piece. As an example, there is a focus in the second part on how it is yet unknown if ride-sharing is actually an ecological progression or if it may in fact be worse. The data is too new to get a proper read, but there are theories that point in both directions.

    On the subject of Uber itself, while I do think it is successful as a paradigm shifting way to look at personal mobility, what I am pinpointing here is specifically the technology. Too often, items of great technological change that can impact massive infrastructure are out of reach to the layman. Uber or Lyft or any other sharing platform, has put this societal change into the hands of every day users. The argument I am making is that when the technology catches up in our vehicles in the not-so-distant future, transport options such as public bus fleets (to use your example) that drive themselves, will not be foreign to users wanting to hop on a bus. Uber is used as a means to an end, as they have created a wildly successful (and even more-so emotion inciting) platform which can be scaled throughout our cities (if not by Uber themselves, then others, including government, who will hopefully play off the success of this type of app).

    The dangers of job loss because of automated fleets of vehicles is a very real and dangerous threat to those who work in these industries, which is one of the reasons I steered away from this line of thinking in this specific article. The economic factors could have their own 5-part piece, and require a much more intense discourse.

    While you are correct, Uber may not grow to be a conglomerate that rules all our roads, the technology and accessibility that they have released created a new form of shareable transportation, that once AV’s become an acceptable form of transportation, will ease the transition of many other companies, government entities, transportation services to switch to a service like this.

    Thanks again for the comment!

  3. Thanks for the reply, Jeremy. I think one issue here is the way you are treating the technology associated with Uber as a kind of thing unto itself rather than a product of social-cultural change (too often we think it is the technology that changes things, rather than the society that looks for and develops certain technologies to serve particular needs). Technologies do not emerge out of nowhere. You are right, the technology is part of a larger change in personal mobility. I guess my point is one cannot make transportation an issue in and of itself. I am not so worried about taxi and bus drivers losing their jobs, but rather the danger of expecting a technology itself to change things. What is the kind of society we want to live in and what technologies will help us get there? I will be curious to hear your take on the automated car.

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