For several years, you’ve been reading about efforts by tech companies and the major automakers to build fleets of cars that can literally drive themselves. Once the technology is perfected, you should be able to, in theory, enter the vehicle, state your destination to the presumed digital assistant, sit back and relax, and you’ll be taken to your destination, even with stops along the way, with comfort and safety.
Nothing to think about; well, except if you have any latent fears that such a system can ever work successfully.
In a published report, GM says it will be ready to put fleets of self-driving vehicles into a number of “dense urban environments” by 2019. Development is being spearheaded by Cruise Automation, a company GM acquired in 2016 to rev up development of autonomous vehicles.
Add to that the self-driving vehicles already being tested by such company’s as Alphabet, parent company of Google, Apple and even the largest ride hailing firm, Uber.
Indeed, I’ve already seen a few of those automated Uber vehicles, consisting of converted Volvo SUVs, on the roads in and around Tempe, Arizona.
Now according to GM, they hope to reduce the cost of running their self-driving vehicles to under $1 per mile by 2025, just eight years from now.
What’s GM’s end game? Well, they are planning on taking on Uber, Lyft, and other ride-hailing systems, with the promise that their self-driving vehicles will cost 40% less per mile than companies who use human drivers.
That’s just GM. It doesn’t take into account the fact that Uber and Lyft and other firms are planning on doing the same thing, only they haven’t quite been as specific about their game plans. But the goals are clear, and that is to put human drivers — and that includes taxi drivers — out of work.
Ultimately, there will also be fleets of self-driving trucks, meaning that you won’t need human drivers spending hours on end on the road, basically giving up real lives to sit in the cabs all day or night. Well, I suppose they might have some people helping to remove cargos, but you get the picture.
That’s then, this is now.
These days, several million people around the world, including your humble editor, are relying on Lyft and Uber to provide at least a part-time income to help pay the bills. Some use it for full-time work. Indeed, at a time when the economies of the world are in questionable shape, this is a productive way to generate some extra cash.
Right now, both Uber and Lyft claim (or pretend) to be trying to make life better for their drivers. Uber has been stung by corporate scandals, with its CEO, Travis Kalanick, being given his walking papers. It’s in the latter stages of implementing its “180 Days of Change” program, designed to improve life on the road.
So in-app support for tipping, something long offered by Lyft, was added several months ago. While drivers aren’t notified where a rider is going until they are picked up, they now notify you if the trip is expected to take more than 45 minutes. This and other new features are designed to potentially help drivers earn more cash.
Over the next few years, it may work out fine. But it’s clear that human drivers are going to be yesterday’s news some day. As with manufacturers who rely more on more on robots than people to assemble products, drivers are an endangered species.
At first, riders will have the option to choose humans over self-driving vehicles. But when they see much lower prices for the latter, only a few skeptics will choose the former.
It may not matter so much to me, as I fully expect to be too old to care when the time comes. But younger drivers have to realize they are engaged in a profession with a hard stop. As I said, that’s just as true with manufacturing. While we fret over the poor working conditions of all those factory workers in Asia who build iPhones and other tech gear, more and more of them are being replaced by machines. Some day, in the not-too-distant future, it may well be that these sprawling factories will be managed by a small number of people managing a huge system of assembly robots.
So hopes to bring back manufacturing to the United States, and thus give workers their jobs back, are probably not going to be fulfilled except in a limited number of cases.
Now other than the concerns about the fate of drivers for ride-hailing services, I do wonder if the predictions about huge fleets of self-driving vehicles might just be a tad optimistic. Tests so far have been in a limited number of cities with relatively predictable driving scenarios. To stretch that capability to cover entire countries may take a lot longer than the current three to five years.
What’s more, just what will it cost for you to buy one of those vehicles if you don’t want to just hail a ride? For its 2018 Cadillac CT6, you have to pay $5,000 extra for its Super Cruise feature, and that’s for a souped up lane and cruise control system that can only function on a small number of specially selected limited-access freeways. Even when the hardware and software are nailed down, questions of liability, the impact on auto insurance and other considerations, will have to be resolved.
So maybe Uber and Lyft drivers won’t be out of work quite as quickly as GM and other companies expect.