Unless you’ve been living under a rock the last couple of years, you probably know what Uber is. You also heard Elon Musk announce the incorporation of self-driving technology in the Model S. At a 2014 Coding Conference, Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick entertained the thought of replacing his drivers with automated vehicles as a way to reduce the cost of his service. The question on everyone’s mind now is what happens to Uber if self-driving cars become a feature of the mainstream automotive landscape?
Uber Disrupted First
Since the app officially launched in 2011, Uber has been at the center of controversy as it threatened to disrupt the established status quo of the taxi industry. As users became familiar with the ease and convenience of the app, the tides continued to shift in Uber’s favor as in steadily grew to become one of the most dominant forms of local transportation around the world. It’s lower cost, reliability, and overall convenience were attributes that cemented their platform in the popular consciousness.
Challenges Faced By Uber
Despite its current success, Uber has faced a wide array of hurdles along the way. From protests by taxi drivers to local regulations restricting Uber pickups at key locations like major airports and sports venues, Uber has not had it easy.
Critics have pointed to the lack of oversight Uber has over its drivers as a glaring weakness in its platform. Since the drivers are essentially independent contractors that simply use Uber’s technology to acquire fares in exchange for a cut of the profits, some have expressed concerns over the safety of the passengers and who bears liability in the event of impropriety or an accident.
Google Venture, which has invested over $258 million in the company, could be also one of its most bitter rivals in the near future. A while back, all signs seemed to indicate Google would purchase Uber. However, that did not happen. Instead, Google has continued to develop its driverless car technology. This news has some people at Uber wondering if their close ties with Google are nearing an end.
Like Google, Tesla has also pushed the envelope regarding self-driving vehicles. Although the tech is currently in its infancy, it’s easy to see how disruptive this can be to a company like Uber, which is based on the convenience of providing accessible transportation in primarily high-density urban areas where parking is limited or cost prohibitive.
Once the technology is perfected and incorporated in a wider variety of vehicles, you may only need to launch your car’s app and direct it to pick you up and drop you off wherever you want, like your own personal taxi. At that point, the only customers Uber would be able to hang onto would be those that didn’t own one of these cars. Until then, Kalanick’s idea about reducing costs by replacing his drivers with self-driving cars could actually work, but it would only be a matter of time until the entire platform winds up being just as disrupted as the taxi industry was when it first hit the scene.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle to self-driving cars will be the legality of having software in charge of the vehicle with no occupants. Who is at fault if one of these autonomous vehicles gets into an accident? What if your car gets hacked and is under the control of an outside agent? The possibilities are truly dizzying, but it will be necessary for society to address them before the tech can make it to the mainstream stage.
Although Uber is certainly in no immediate danger of being replaced by self-driving vehicles, the writing is on the wall if you follow the technology to its natural conclusion. The benefits of having autonomous vehicles in the mainstream society are tremendous when you consider the relief on urban traffic and parking, but the legal consequences of relinquishing human control need to be addressed before we can see them.