Driverless Ubers: Pros & Cons

The pros & cons of America's first driverless cars starting out as rideshares; Plus: What's it like to ride in one?

driverless rideshare

Today, many experts within the automobile and technology industries see autonomous vehicles as a matter of “when,” not “if.” And instead of focusing on putting driverless technology into the hands of private citizens in their personal cars, several automakers and tech companies have already made important strides in doing so through driverless rideshares.

calling a driverless rideshare

Driverless Future (and Present)

In 2014, Uber’s co-founder and CEO, Travis Kalanick, declared that his company would become driverless—and soon. His plan was called audacious, and even reckless, writes Bloomberg, and just two years ago, most analysts believed truly autonomous vehicles were still decades away. But Uber’s first fleet of self-driving cars took to the streets in Pittsburgh in mid-September, and loyal Uber customers (invited to try the service privately) and a few reporters have already experienced driverless rideshares and what may become the future of personal transportation.

All self-driving Uber vehicles are still supervised by an alert and engaged human driver, but Bloomberg points out that Uber had crossed “an important milestone that no automotive or technology company has yet achieved.” Google’s driverless car, Tesla’s autopilot mode, and Ford’s August announcement that they plan for level 4 autonomous vehicles to be available in 2021 make each company appear quite close to the same milestone Uber achieved this summer. However, none but Uber has successfully introduced self-driving vehicles to the market in any way. 

(One important note: Uber won’t manufacture the cars themselves as Google, Tesla, and Ford are doing. Instead, they partnered with both Ford and Volvo for this summer’s Pittsburgh launch, and they’ll develop kits for partnerships with other automakers, writes Bloomberg. And a recent partnership with Otto, which develops the sensors self-driving cars need, will help Uber keep its innovative edge.)

The government, too, is finally catching up with driverless technology by giving developers regulation guidelines without stifling innovation, which include a 15-point safety assessment and a requirement that developers share data with the federal government.

driverless car technology for ridesharing

So let’s face it. This is happening. And it seems quite possible that you’ll have your first driverless experience in an Uber. Will it work out? We explore the potential pros and cons:

Pros of Driverless Rideshares

  • Cost cutting for everyone: Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick cites the cost benefit as one of the biggest motivating factors for driverless rideshares, both for consumers and for the business. “The reason Uber could be expensive is because you’re not just paying for the car—you’re paying for the other dude in the car. When there’s no other dude in the car, the cost of taking an Uber anywhere becomes cheaper than owning a vehicle,” he said.  Ford CEO Mark Fields echoed a similar sentiment when he told Business Insider that the biggest expense in ridesharing is the driver, and that drivers are the reason rideshare companies aren’t making money. Removing the driver, says Fields, is a “very compelling” proposition financially. (But what about the drivers who rely on Uber as a key source of income? We’ll get to that below.)
  • Building mapping capabilities: For cars to actually be able to drive themselves, they’ll need incredible amounts of detailed mapping and navigation information, gathered from real cars traveling on real streets. Uber says they’ll use data from the current Uber app (with human drivers and riders) to aid the development of their fully autonomous vehicles. And when rideshare vehicles are fully autonomous, they’ll be able to continuously collect data from the cities and towns in which they operate.
  • Building trust among consumers: Consumers might not be ready to invest in their own self-driving cars in the four or five years that both Uber and Ford expect it will take them to bring fully autonomous cars to the market. However, consumers might be willing to try out a self-driving rideshare. With less commitment and less responsibility on them as passengers, the general public can experience fully autonomous vehicles and gain a sense of trust with this new technology – trust that might directly correlate to more and more people purchasing self-driving cars of their own down the road.

Cons of Driverless Rideshares

  • Job loss: One of the biggest downsides to driverless rideshares is a loss of employment and income for the many people who currently work for Uber and other ridesharing companies. By design, fully self-driving cars won’t require personnel, and the 1.5 million Uber drivers around the world will likely eventually lose their jobs. Drivers across the country are already promising “aggressive campaigns” against Uber’s driverless initiative, reports MarketWatch. Though Uber promises vehicle maintenance jobs will replace those lost to self-driving cars, drivers on the front lines are skeptical of how that will work out. “I don’t think many Uber drivers, as they are kicked out of driving for Uber, will want to go maintain those cars,” Harry Campbell (The Rideshare Guy) said.
  • Loss of goodwill: Much of the goodwill Uber and similar rideshare companies have built up around the world can be attributed to job creation. If that no longer applies with the advent of driverless rideshares, will legislators be willing to let them operate their cities, where they’ll put traditional taxi drivers out of business and create mountains of paperwork for lawmakers? It remains to be seen.
By design, fully driverless cars won't require personnel and 1.5M Uber drivers could lose jobs.

driverless uber

Plus: What’s It Like to Ride in a Driverless Uber?

We rounded up impressions from several individuals and reporters who have ridden in the driverless Ubers in Pittsburgh:

  • The human driver is still critical. The self-driving cars have trouble on bridges and often request the human driver take over, and there are some 500 bridges in the city, writes Bloomberg.
  • Road rules are king. A writer at USA Today said the self-driving Uber drove like “a teen on a driver’s test,” in that it followed all traffic rules to an almost excruciating T, never going above the speed limit even by a little bit or driving aggressively in any way. But, it also “handled several complex scenarios deftly,” like driving behind bicyclists and making turns against traffic on urban roads.
  • Passenger experience is important. A real-time lidar map shows passengers what the car is seeing to test out how much detail passengers need in order to feel safe, reports Business Insider.
  • “It feels surprisingly normal.” Business Insider’s driver had his hands on the wheel almost the entire time, and had to take over at least four times in a five-mile route, though he mostly wasn’t driving and said it felt like a normal drive.

The self-driving Ubers are still in their infancy, but we’re watching their development with anticipation. Would you ride in a self-driving rideshare car? And if so, what would it take, technologically speaking, to make you comfortable?