ICYMI: NHTSA Chief rains on the self-driving car parade; NY State Legislature gridlocked on rideshare regs; Uber has another "breakthrough idea"

 

Be sure to follow @TheAutonomer for official news and updates – and catch me @GregoryRRogers for transportation+tech updates and the occasional Star Wars reference.

1. NY State Legislature gridlocked on rideshare – With the end of the New York State Legislature’s session ending on Thursday, state lawmakers are divided on a bill to regulate Transportation Network Companies like Uber and Lyft. 

As lobbyists for rideshare and taxi companies alike are racing to influence legislators, as there is a lot at stake – out of the two versions of the bill under consideration, both enable cities to regulate the rideshare industry locally.  The difference primarily lies in insurance requirements – one bill requires $1.5 million after a driver is hailed, and the other $1.0 million.  NY Governor Andrew Cuomo did not include a rideshare bill in his list of 6 priorities before the end of session.

More at lohud.

2. Another Rosekind Reveal – According to Business Insider, NHTSA head Mark Rosekind stated last week that states will have the ability to add their own state-specific regulations on top of NHTSA’s self-driving car regulations that will be released next month. 

This is bad news for the advocates and manufacturers of self-driving cars who have asked for a comprehensive set of federal regulations from NHTSA, as opposed to the uneasy patchwork of 50 different regulatory structures across every state. 

Business Insider has more to say about this bummer.

3. Another original idea from Uber – Following its competitors Lyft and Gett, Uber is now allowing passengers to schedule their rides 30 days in advance.  What will they think of next?

USA Today has the word on this astounding technological breakthrough.

ICYMI: 1776 Challenge Cup; Really, what does the Foxx say?; GO BEARS!; GM+Lyft Gather Steam in California

Happy Friday!  Last night we reported from the 1776 Challenge Cup Semifinals in Washington, DC where we saw dozens of brilliant startups that are using technology to improve society all across the world.  Among our favorite presentations were Shippify, SimpleCitizen, and TransitScreen

Join me again on Twitter tonight to get the live scoop on the competition at @GregoryRRogers and @TheAutonomer

 

1. We still don’t know what the Foxx says – But we’re getting closer.  Yesterday, mayors from 7 cities presented their proposal to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx for the final round in the Smart City Challenge hosted by the U.S. Department of Transportation.  The winner is expected to be announced this month.  From Route Fifty:

Foxx told Route Fifty after the presentations on Thursday that one valuable aspect of the competition was that it pushed cities to examine the future of their transportation systems.

This is especially important, he said, at a time when, until late last year, a long-term surface transportation funding bill remained elusivein Congress—creating uncertainty for state and local governments looking to plan infrastructure projects. “What happens is, at the local level, people stop planning,” Foxx said. “They’re just trying to keep water from piling up in the boat.”

Route Fifty produced tremendous write-ups on each of the proposals Austin, TexasColumbus, OhioDenver; Kansas City, MissouriPittsburghPortland, Oregon; and San Francisco.

Zoom over to Route Fifty for a recap of yesterday’s pitches.

 

2. And now we’re pod people – RDM Group launched its new driverless pods at Automechanika this week, showcasing its new pods that will fit between 2-8 people across three different models.  According to Readwrite, “RDM is banking on advertising to be the money maker for its driverless project. Instead of the person sitting inside the pod focusing on the road (or path), it wants them to interact with the iPads during their journey.”

This just proves that we’re all moving towards being the humans in Wall-E.  Why do they call it Readwrite?

3. GO BEARS! – Shout-out to my alma mater, UC Berkeley, for teaming up with San Francisco in the USDOT Smart City Challenge

 

4. GM+Lyft partnership gathering steam in California – Lyft drivers can’t currently rent vehicles through GM’s app-powered car rental service, but this may soon change.  According to SF Examiner:

GM filed to become an interested “party” that can submit recommendations to the CPUC as it crafts its “Phase 3” regulations, a sweeping set of state laws for Uber and Lyft that will be debated over the next year. The CPUC regulates ride-hails like Uber and Lyft, of which there are an estimated 37,000 in San Francisco, according to city officials.

One of those regulations under heated debate is whether leased or rented vehicles can legally be considered personal vehicles, which are the only types of vehicles currently allowed on Uber or Lyft platforms.

Check out SF Examiner for more.

5. Have a great weekend!

ICYMI: What does the Foxx Say??? Smart Cities Challenge Finals; Uber copies Lyft for the first time; 21 million self-driving cars by 2035

 

Happy Thursday!  It's a huge day for smart cities and transportation tech as the finalists of the U.S. Department of Transportation's Smart Cities Challenge present their pitches to Transportation Sec. Anthony Foxx.  

Be sure to follow me on Twitter tonight for live reporting from 1776's Challenge Cup Finals in Washington, DC.  Catch me at @GregoryRRogers and follow @TheAutonomer for our general updates.

 

1. What does the Foxx say? – Today’s the big day!  Seven of the finalists in the DOT’s Smart City Challenge are pitching their proposals to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx in person.  From San Francisco to Pittsburgh, each city has built proposals that merge the latest developments in technology, transportation, and design to usher in an era of expanded urban renewal and mobility. 

This high profile, Shark Tank-esque competition has already had lasting impacts beyond simply encouraging cities to develop modernization plans in pursuit of a $500 milion grant.  Truly, an entire commercial ecosystem and national policy discussion is drawing the attention of policymakers and percolating through to influence urban residents’ vision for the future of cities.  Michael Larris of The Washington Post has a tremendous analysis here.

 

2. Perennial copycat Uber decides to play nice – This Monday, Uber announced a series of new perks for driver-partners that were oddly reminiscent of features that had long been available to Lyft drivers: the ability to pick up customers during a commute, instant payments for drivers outside of regular paydays, and the option to pause ride requests while in driver mode. 

This is the latest in a series of steps taken by Uber to counter both public criticism and legal action surrounding its treatment of drivers – as well as to catch up with its primary competitor, Lyft, which has already implemented most of those features to entice drivers.  Read more at Fortune.

 

3. Fiat Chrysler in early talks with Uber – Following on the heels of Google’s reported discussions with GM and Fiat Chrysler to deploy self-driving technology in their vehicles, it appears that Fiat Chrysler is diversifying their options in early talks with Uber as well. 

With the increasingly complex web of partnerships and investments, it’s evident that auto manufacturers are opting to cooperate with tech companies rather than directly compete with them to bring self-driving cars to the market.  Particularly problematic for Uber is Lyft’s already-blossoming partnership with Detroit giant General Motors – although Toyota has since invested in Uber, the all-American ethos of Google-GM-Lyft may prove incredibly formidable when forming a trusted brand in the new era of mobility.  Fortune has the story once again.

 

4. 21 million self-driving cars by 2035 – That’s the latest prediction from IHS Automotive, which also predicts as many as 600,000 autonomous vehicles will be on the world’s roads by 2025. 

Citing the rising popularity of car sharing and rideshare, as well as shifting consumer preferences toward electric vehicles and multimodal transportation, IHS predicts that the U.S. will be among the first to deploy autonomous vehicles with several thousand in use by 2020.  Although this neatly aligns with the objectives set out by Nissan, Toyota, and numerous others, the greatest impediment is still insufficient and unpredictable regulations at every level of government from local to federal.  More at Automobile.

 

5. China to pass U.S. on national self-driving car standards – Beleaguering the point, China has passed the U.S. yet again, this time by establishing a national standard for driverless technology.  By providing increased regulatory certainty for automakers, China hopes to spur innovation and become the primary hub for self-driving car testing and commercial sales. 

As part of this initiative, the first wave of autonomous vehicle testing in the Jianging district of Shanghai began this Tuesday, kicking off evaluations of every traffic condition ranging from speeding vehicles to congestion to road construction.  Zoom over to CCTV America for more.

ICYMI: Drinking and Self-Driving; Austin's Rideshare Nonprofit; GMooglyft; Pittsburgh's Smart City Bid; Baidu's Self-Driving Ambitions

city-street-1081966_1920.jpg

 

1.       Do we call it GMooglyft? – In another aggressive push forward, General Motors indicated on Tuesday that it would work with Google to deploy autonomous vehicles in order to compete with Tesla.  In the past year GM has rapidly expanded its technological capacity and foothold in Silicon Valley through a $500 million investment and partnership with Lyft and $1 billion acquisition of Cruise Automation, a self-driving car startup.

Google has already stated that it will be developing autonomous versions of a Chrysler minivan in conjunction with Fiat Chrysler, with the early testing expected to begin this year.  Yet it does not fully appear that Google would tie itself exclusively to GM, as Google is reportedly open to exploring opportunities with a wide range of auto partners. 

Yet the arms race with Uber, Apple, and other competitors may not pan out entirely in Google’s favor if they’re looking for a better deal: Toyota has already invested in Uber which is aggressively testing self-driving cars in Pittsburgh; Volkswagen dropped $300 million into European rideshare company Gett; and Apple has dropped $1 billion into Didi, Uber’s rival in China.

Investor’s Business Daily has the word.

 

 

2.       Pittsburgh’s Smart City Bid – As the home to Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center, some Google operations, and Carnegie Mellon University’s recently-gutted robotics department, the stakes are high for Pittsburgh as a finalist in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart Cities Challenge.

Pittsburgh’s proposal outlines opportunities to increase mobility across disparate regions of the city, expand coordination across key entities in the public and private sector, and harmonize interactions across its entire transportation ecosystem.  Among the more creative options presented is the creation of an autonomous shuttle along Electric Avenue and easing the integration of autonomous vehicles as the technology continues to advance.  Cruise over to Route Fifty for more.

 

3.       Hello from the other side – Baidu, the Chinese search engine giant, has begun to test its vehicles around Beijing, Shanghai, and the southeastern Anhui province and intends to produce driverless cars that are ready for the market between 2018 and 2021.  At Hong Kong’s Converge conference, Senior Vice President of Baidu Wang Jing indicated that self-driving cars would help to increase the use of rideshare and reduce congestion.  Investopedia has the story.’’

 

 

4.       Rideshare reemerges in Austin – After Uber and Lyft initially pulled out of Austin last month, 10,000 drivers suddenly found themselves without a trusted source of revenue and passengers had to find alternative ways to get around.  Initially, it appeared that the Austin City Council could tweak their regulations and entice Uber and Lyft to return to the car-centric city. 

Although negotiations between the rideshare giants and the city are reportedly in the works, a number of rideshare startups are gradually filling the void.  Among the most notable is RideAustin, which local Austin citizens pitched in funds for its operation.   Adopting a people-first approach, RideAustin has emphasized its by the people, for the people with an Austin-centric ethos built around optional donations to charity at the end of each ride and exploring opportunities to provide app access to underprivileged communities.  RideAustin, which is operated as a nonprofit, has also opted to pay for its drivers’ fingerprinting and background checks – a marked departure from Uber and Lyft’s vehement opposition.  Quartz is on it.

 

5.       Don’t drink and self-drive – Adrian Flux, a U.K. insurance agency, is now offering a driverless car insurance policy targeting early adopters of vehicles with autonomous features like the Tesla Model 3.  The policy has all the makings of traditional car insurance, with added coverage for losses and damage related to incomplete updates/security patches, navigation system failure, and hacking.

The policy balances liability by releasing drivers of responsibility for failures in the car’s driverless technology while reinforcing that drivers must take responsibility for the maintenance of their vehicle and be prepared to take control of the vehicle at all times to avoid accidents. 

For this reason, drivers are not permitted to be intoxicated, napping, or otherwise preoccupied behind the wheel.  For a quick recap and pictures of adults dressed as Leprechauns, trounce over to Inverse.

Bloomberg on how GM can learn from Lyft: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/videos/2016-06-07/this-is-how-gm-can-learn-from-lyft

ICYMI: UberBike launches in Amsterdam; Uber, but for predatory lending; Your car could drive itself for $1,000

 

1.       Uber, but for people who ride bikes – The sick, the weary, and those who might have indulged in one too many beers to bike now have another option for safely getting home with their bikes – and without all of the work. 

The rideshare giant recently launched UberBike in Amsterdam – a city where the bikes outnumber the residents – to provide cyclists with the option of ordering a car with a bike rack to deliver them to their destination.  Passengers will pay regular pricing, but their bikes face a €4 price of admission.  Hear it from the horse’s mouth.

 

2.       Uber, but for predatory lending – In Uber’s world, disruption knows no bounds – not even subprime leases.  Through a partnership with Xchange Leasing LLC, its one year-old subsidiary based in Delaware, Uber has loaned vehicles to some of the 10-15% of people who sign up to become driver-partners. 

Although this has been marketed as creating economic opportunities for drivers, a recent Bloomberg report showed that drivers are paying astronomical leasing fees—sometimes facing 50-100% more than the Bluebook value, if drivers should choose to buy their car.  Uber now faces additional criticism since it is planning to put 100,000 more cars on the road (contrary to its promises to take them off to reduce congestion and emissions),  lowering fares paid to drivers (thereby tethering drivers to rented vehicles with ballooning costs), and for historically partnering with other predatory lenders such as Santander.  As noted by CityLab, Uber’s main competitor Lyft does not provide subprime auto loans and is still in the process of developing its rental programs with General Motors.  To continue reminiscing about 2008, click here.

 

3.       Austin’s Smart City Bid – This Thursday, the seven finalist cities in the U.S. DOT Smart City Challenge will present their final grant proposals to Sec. Anthony Foxx.  Austin, TX is among those competing for the $50 million grant and has developed a vision around the perennial dreams of smart cities: self-driving cars, vehicle-to-infrastructure communication, and using drones for last-mile deliveries.

Yet with its rapid growth across the past decade, Austin faces significantly more complex challenges than modernizing its infrastructure.  Echoing the concerns of fellow contestants including San Francisco and Seattle, Austin Mayor Steve Adler identified high housing and transportation costs as chief among the city’s challenges in the coming year.  Accordingly, the city’s proposal was designed to tackle mobility disparities, develop smart infrastructure nodes that increase compatibility across the entire transit ecosystem, and bridge the growing gaps between the prosperous urban center and declining suburbs.  Cruise on over to Route Fifty for more.

 

4.       Lyft, but for Walmart – Continuing its constant battle to remain relevant in the era of Amazon, Walmart is entering partnerships with Lyft in Denver and Uber in Phoenix to provide same-day grocery deliveries.  Through this initative, which is part of Walmart’s $2 billion push to increase its e-commerce footprint, Walmart customers will order their goods online and Walmart employees will ride in an Uber or Lyft to deliver the items to their door. 

Sure, it’s lazy… but it’s better than spending the day in a Walmart, right?  Mosey on over to TheStreet.com for more.

 

5.       Mobileye lives – George Hotz, the hotshot techie who famously developed an autonomous vehicle in his garage last year and has historically feuded with Elon Musk, has continued to push ahead with his dream of producing aftermarket autonomous vehicle technology.  His startup, Comma.ai, promises to develop kits that will allow customers to make their cars drive themselves for less than $1,000.

Comma.ai has taken a significantly different approach than its competitors in Silicon Valley by leveraging machine learning to track human drivers’ behavior, identify the good and bad habits of drivers, and combine all of the “best” driving behaviors to deliver the safest and most efficient self-driving car possible. 

Instead of the Google approach of theorizing about drivers’ behaviors and taking ideas from lab to streets, Hotz is encouraging individuals to use his new app, Chffr (pronounced “chauffeur” because we’re in a post-vowel world) to contribute up to 1 billion miles of driving information to the company’s data trove by the end of 2018.  The Verge has the story.

Autonomer Weekly's ICYMI: 5 Updates on Smart Cities and Transportation

 

Uber’s mirror image – Indonesia-based ride-sharing company, Grab, has made a huge splash in international ridesharing markets through its prudent alliances with Didi Chuxing (China), Ola (India), and Lyft (U.S.).  With 15 million downloads of the Grab app and active operations in Singapore, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Thailand, Grab is poised for its next phase of explosive growth.  The scrappy CEO of Grab, Anthony Tan, adheres to Confucian precepts in working with regulators, stating:  "We work with regulators the way we’ve been taught in my family business since I was a kid. We work with the Ministry of Transportation in an open, collaborative way. I think the Confucian way is to work with them hand in hand to build trust."  Read more at Fast Company

EU cities to surpass U.S. as innovation hubs – Among the 7 reasons cited are: superior urban design in Europe, smart city initiatives, attention towards inequality and social safety nets, and the declining importance of venture capital.  Read more at Co.Exist

On-demand ride-hailing, far in advance – Citing customer demand for the option to schedule trips in advance, Lyft is testing a new feature in San Francisco that will allow passengers to select pickup times up to 24 hours ahead of time.  The new feature may create some complications for drivers who are not accustomed to scheduling their days out in advance and must ensure they remain near the scheduled pickup location if they plan to provide regular on-demand rides as well (H/T Harry Campbell, fellow rideshare driver and creator of The Rideshare Guy).  Read more at Mashable

10 roads to autonomous vehicles – Now that every tech company and auto giant from Apple to Volvo are racing to deploy self-driving cars and laying out their visions for the future of car ownership, it can be a little tricky to sort out the allegiances, initiatives, and progress of each company.  Forbes has a quick rundown of the 10 leaders in the field that will get you up to speed quickly.  Read more at Forbes

Uber, but for kids – Following its announcement of Family Profiles, which allows users to share their rides and expenses with up to 10 others, Uber has introduced Trip Tracker - a new feature targeting parents and their smartphone-wielding children.  Now Uber customers will be immediately notified when someone in their Family Profile requests a ride and they will be able to follow the trip in real time and submit payment when the passenger is dropped off.  Read more at SFist

 

Benevolent Disruption: Lyft’s Pink Mustache Crusade in Flip Flops

Over the past year, San Francisco-based Lyft has grown out of being a scrappy alternative to Uber and into a formidable, personality-driven transportation powerhouse.  After receiving a $500 million investment from GM and expanding its partnership with Starbucks to incentivize drivers while rewarding passengers, Lyft has maintained its quirky corporate personality seemingly against all odds.

By and large, it seems to come from the ambiguous and nebulous factor that every company seeks to optimize but can never define: culture. 

At the top, Lyft boasts a collection of tech crusaders and dreamers.  Its cofounders, John Zimmer and Logan Green, have remained at its helm as guiding spirits since Lyft’s humble beginnings as Zimride - a network for Santa Barbara college students who wanted to share rides home to Los Angeles or San Francisco. 

Emily Castor drives Lyft’s transportation policy initiatives with a warm personality and sharp intellect that have come to exemplify Lyft’s friendly crusaders-in-Birkenstocks image in Washington.  Joseph Okpaku, Vice President of Government Relations, displays an acute intellect and articulate adherence to the company’s mission, even when challenged by a panel of Senators on the safety of autonomous vehicles and transportation network companies (TNCs) like Lyft.

(Source: Lyft)

At its base, Lyft’s hundreds of thousands of drivers are drawn to an economic opportunity that presents itself as more of a community than a substitute taxi service like its competitors.  When Lyft’s drivers are onboarded in Washington, DC they’re encouraged by fellow “driver-mentors” to join a Facebook page and GroupMe chat where drivers share tips, organize spontaneous meetups, and update each other on earnings.

From personal experience, this makes drivers much happier – communicating with other drivers establishes the sense of a shared experience despite a constant spatial separation.  The platform also allows drivers to receive tips in their app and provides guaranteed hourly fares to drivers during commuting hours.  With Uber in DC, the same accommodations are rarely found. 

John Zimmer, Co-founder of Lyft on the best advice he’s ever received: “Stay true to your values, continue to put people first, and business success will follow,” from Howard Schultz at Starbucks. (CNN Money)

 

Benevolent Disruption

With Silicon Valley’s explosive growth and the emergence of startup culture, the term disruption changed from the negative thing that happens when coworkers walk into meetings late and into a term for anything that changes something else that has long remained the same.  From Google to Airbnb to Uber, this word has been used with almost untarnished reverence in Silicon Valley and tech circles around the world.

And yet, simply making change without a recognition of the consequences should not be enough.  When something is disrupted, it should be done both with purpose and with a purpose. 

That is to say, firms that are disrupting their field should strive to be benevolent actors in the market, or at the very least, minimize the negative impacts of their activity.  Economic activity is about more than dollars and goods/services changing hands – it’s also about how people make those dollars, goods, and services. 

The purpose of Lyft is to fill up the 85% of empty car seats on the road, and it does so with the purpose of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from single-occupant vehicles, increasing mobility for the entire cross-section of urban dwellers, and – this is a bit more of a tangential benefit – giving people the opportunity to interact positively in an increasingly distant society.

It’s obvious when speaking with Lyft’s government relations team that they don’t just have a mission – they believe in it. 

One of the most evident qualities sought after by the startup is intellectual curiosity and a willingness to dig deep into why, philosophically, Lyft can and should exist.  It isn’t taken for granted that their employees are contractors – when asked, it’s clear that arguments for and against their business model have been painstakingly discussed, weighed, and picked apart to create a sincere, nuanced perspective. 

 Their objective, in short, is this: make transportation more affordable, environmentally sustainable, and friendly for everyone – it doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re going, or where you came from, it matters that you’re able to get there. 

 

Chasing Windmills

To accomplish its lofty goals, Lyft will face tremendous challenges in the coming years, requiring even more gumption and bravado to do so. 

In less than a decade, Uber and Lyft upended the taxi industry and brought much-needed disruption to urban transportation.  Yet the crown goes to the conquerors: a territory must be ruled after it is won, even with barbarians at the gates.

In this sense, Lyft’s strength today is its Achilles heel tomorrow.  In the short run, rendering services through private contractors – 70% of whom also have full-time jobs – is a clever option that has offered economic opportunity and flexibility to drivers while allowing it to operate with minimal overhead and a fluid, ever-expanding workforce.

But in the long run, this may not be enough.  Some people may choose to drive for Lyft full time and use it as a sole source of income, like I once did

They may not have access to affordable health insurance, may not receive an adequate wage if Lyft were to lower fares significantly, and could see their cars sink into disrepair. 

As Lyft and Uber continue to expand, they’ll have to take on more and more drivers who might not be adequately prepared to operate as independent contractors who don’t know that they have to set aside portions of their checks for taxes, who aren’t aware of their own liability in accidents, or who face sudden and complete unemployment every time their car breaks down. 

Because drivers aren’t considered employees, Lyft and Uber have to interact with their drivers extremely carefully.  They cannot provide tax advice, benefits, or a host of other worker protections that are found in traditional employment. 

Even with Uber’s most recent agreement to allow drivers to form an association that is sanctioned by the Machinists Union in New York City, drivers only have an established forum to speak with Uber’s representatives and provide feedback – unionization and collective bargaining are expressly forbidden.

Suddenly, drivers may seem less like empowered entrepreneurs and more like vulnerable freelancers who are vulnerable to the whims of the market, misfortune, and misrepresentation.  In turn, passengers may begin to hear about drivers’ hardships and challenges as contractors.  

Such an unmitigated shift in the welfare of drivers and public perception might mean the difference between benevolent disruption and a failed experiment crushed by the weight of populist opposition. 

Nonetheless, it appears that many drivers prefer to be independent contractors for now.  One poll suggests that 73% of Uber driver-partners would rather keep their flexible hours than take on a steady 9-to-5 with a set salary.

Anecdotally, this holds true across each conversation with drivers ranging from Washington to Nashville and San Francisco to New York City. 

Lyft drivers represent an entire cross-section of American society – suburban moms, college students, young professionals, people making career transitions during a mid-life crisis, and even grandparents who just want to get out of the house.  They love that they can drive for Lyft any time they want to make money and interact with people, without needing to build their life around a new job.

And sure, they have complaints.  Sometimes passengers are a little rowdy on the weekends, their cars always feel dirty, they find bizarre items in their car after driving, and often they get poor ratings from passengers without knowing the reason.

Yet every occupation has its ups and downs.  Even in a dream job we still have to wake up early, or work late, or rush to prepare for a big conference and annual review. 

For Lyft drivers, this may not even be a problem much longer.

 

The Next Disruption

The company’s new partnership with General Motors will eventually replace its army of rideshare drivers with a fleet of self-driving cars.  By offering on-demand rides without their greatest operating expense – paying drivers – Lyft will once again have the ability to disrupt the transportation industry with a service that is cheaper, faster, and potentially safer than its current model.

Automated rides mean more than just “taking the other dude out of the car,” as Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has infamously said.  By mapping out cities and optimizing routes based upon traffic and other passenger requests, Lyft will match passengers heading in the same direction and direct vehicles to use the fastest routes possible.

Gradually, these friendly, quirky drivers in their pink-mustachioed cars will find themselves out of their job as a driver.  It’s likely that other opportunities will emerge for these drivers – whether it’s cleaning the cars, monitoring them from a local Lyft office to ensure safety, or taking advantage of the job training programs that Lyft may offer to appease outgoing drivers.

It should not come as a surprise that Lyft will eventually automate its workforce – practically every sector of the economy has and will continue to automate in order to decrease operating costs and increase efficiency.  And in the coming years, about 50% of jobs have the potential of being automated, with some more at risk than others (see your chance of being replaced here).

The social benefits are clear: even without the expected increase in transit efficiency, eliminating the human element of driving could have potentially saved some of the 38,300 American lives lost in traffic accidents in 2015, considering 94% of car accidents are caused by human error (NHTSA). 

Lyft’s success in transitioning to fully autonomous fleets depends on two factors:

a)     Whether it can convince consumers that self-driving cars are safer, faster, and/or more convenient; and

b)     If it will be able to maintain its carefully-crafted image as the “friendlier” version of Uber even in the face of driver strikes, legislative and regulatory obstacles at the federal level, and failing to distinguish itself from Uber when facing homegrown resistance in cities like Austin, Texas

Compared to Uber, Lyft has a lot more to lose – not in dollars and cents, but in the currency of public perception. 

Consumers may dislike Uber for its CEO’s abrasive comments, scorched-earth expansion into new markets, and labor disputes (although Lyft also has its fair share).  But in spite of this, Uber is a verb and it will likely continue to keep a base of customers simply because it is ubiquitous, convenient, and often cheaper than other options. 

Being the nice guy in rideshare isn’t enough: Lyft will have to continue reinventing itself to rise from being simply an alternative to Uber and brand itself as an entirely different lifestyle choice by integrating itself in the urban transit ecosystem and emphasizing the need for equity and social justice in transportation services.  This can be done through:

·         first-mile/last-mile and carpool partnerships with local transit agencies;

·         ensuring equitable access to safe rides regardless of income, location, race, gender, etc.;

·         employing a fleet of low-emission, self-driving vehicles;

·         adopting specialized pick-up/drop-off locations to reduce congestion and allow for quick drop-offs; and

·         helping to bridge the gaps in paratransit services, if and when appropriate.

Already, Lyft is on its way to fulfilling many of these needs.  And, as always, the boldly charismatic upstart is leading the quixotic charge with a smile.

How Zenefits, Uber Abandoned Core Values and Took Shortcuts

How Zenefits, Uber Abandoned Core Values and Took Shortcuts

Zenefits knowingly broke the rules, got caught red-handed, and now must face the consequences.  Many of them are doing good work, completely isolated from these teams and issues, yet now are implicated by association. I feel this way because I experienced an extremely similar situation about a year and a half ago.

Read More

Autonomer Weekly: Lyft Rising, Chinese Invasion, Groundbreaking TNC Partnership

…and we’re back!  Spring has sprung and we’re in the saddle again with a ton of tech updates from Washington, DC, New York, and Silicon Valley.  In the coming weeks we will also be launching our Benevolent Disrupter series, focusing on tech companies that are disrupting industries while improving the lives of both their employees and their users.

This week we're focusing exclusively on transportation tech - a lot has happened in the past few weeks including a hearing on autonomous vehicles in the U.S. Senate (more to come in a full-length piece), new AV upstarts, and Lyft's accelerated growth.

Transportation Tech

Lyft Rising: In the past year, Lyft has risen from being Uber’s quirky, scrappy alternative to being its recognized, sole competitor in the U.S.  Lyft’s explosive growth in ridership and public exposure, as chronicled by Rick Tetzeli, has been driven by its commitment to positive interactions with drivers and consumers, “coffee and a ride” partnership with Starbucks, and an industry-shaking investment from General Motors.  The capstone, of course, is GM and Lyft’s public mission to transform personal transit by deploying GM’s autonomous vehicles to serve Lyft passengers. (Read more at Fast Company)

Rideshare reinvigorates Nashville: Music City’s residents are praising Uber and Lyft for revitalizing neighborhoods and spurring development around its downtown area.  Nashville residents, who have trouble finding taxi cabs and balk at parking costs, have found that ridesharing services allow them to live in new neighborhoods and make their homes increasingly viable for AirBnB rentals. (The Tennessean)

Wanted – 100,000 Self-Driving Cars: Uber’s continued effort to replace “the other dude in the car” (its driver-partners) with a fleet of autonomous vehicles made waves in the auto industry this month following a report from Germany’s Manager Magazin that Uber has ordered 100,000 Mercedes S-Class cars.  This report remains unconfirmed by Uber and Mercedes/Daimler, which have remained mum on the article.  Even more perplexing is that the Mercedes S-Class, a top-of-the-line limousine, is not yet capable of fully autonomous driving.  (Fortune)

Chinese invasion: Baidu, China’s Internet conglomerate, is set to test autonomous vehicles in the United States – pitting it against Google, Uber, and over a dozen other companies developing the technology in the states.  After completing its first driverless test of its AV prototype in China, Baidu has ambitiously built out its self-driving car program, promising to deploy a fleet of self-driving shuttles in China by 2018.  As development continues, Baidu will likely find itself in direct competition with Uber – a company it has invested in – on both sides of the Pacific. (Yibada)

 Check out Mobility Lab’s recent video below on filling up empty seats in the 85% of cars on the road with only one passenger.

 Waze integration goes live: Waze has now been integrated with Lyft, allowing Lyft drivers to receive real-time updates on driving routes, ETA calculations, and—most importantly—receive Lyft Line updates without having to leave their apps.  This much-welcome change means that your Lyft driver will no longer have to fumble between apps to accept Lyft Line requests and reroute accordingly.  (TechCrunch)

Making America Less Racist Again: Following a heated interaction between a Lyft driver and his two passengers who were en route to a Bernie Sanders for President party, a Lyft driver has been permanently removed from the service.  Lyft spokeswoman Alexandra LaManna issued a statement following this incident when the driver made xenophobic comments about Muslims and Hispanics: "Lyft is committed to maintaining an inclusive and welcoming environment, and discrimination and racism are not tolerated. This driver's access to Lyft has been permanently removed."  (You can see the video at: Salt Lake Tribune)

nuTonomy enters stage left: The MIT startup nuTonomy passed the first driving test of its self-driving taxi in Singapore by navigating autonomously through an obstacle course.  The startup will continue to test its cars in a Singapore business district to prepare to full deployment.  nuTonomy, which raised $3.6 million in seed funding at the beginning of this year, intends to put thousands of driverless taxis on Singapore streets in the coming years.  (Motherboard)

That’s a first: Typically, TNCs and local governments find themselves at odds.  This month, Lyft and the San Francisco Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission struck an agreement to provide its 511 Rideshare program with a new mobility option for local residents.  This will operate separately from existing Lyft services, but current drivers will be able to sign up now at https://www.lyft.com/carpool. As noted in a Lyft press release, this is “the first time a government agency and a TNC have launched a product together.” (Metropolitan Transportation Commission)

Autonomer Weekly: CA Self-Driving Car Regs Released • Lyft's Rebel Alliance • Self-Driving Cars Now the Literal Equivalent of Garage Bands

Merry (belated) Christmas!  Greg, your sloth sweater-wearing host, has retreated back into the frigid Washington bubble after a week of sunshine, Mexican food, and The Force Awakens afterglow.  

Thank you for joining us in 2015 - we have an exciting 2016 ahead with our continued advocacy for Shared Use Mobility Zones (SUM Zones), planned expansions of our policy and internet footprints, and much, much more.

**Please note: hyperlinks are now at the end of article summaries with the cited publication for easy access - additional references may be bolded within each summary**

Transportation Technology

Merry Christmas from Ford/Google (Froogle?): It’s been revealed that Google and Ford are exploring a potential partnership in developing autonomous vehicles.  All of the details aren’t out yet, but the partnership makes a lot of sense in both business strategy and economics.  Google is the perceived leader in self-driving car tech, and partnering with Ford guarantees an American-made, affordable vehicle with strong brand recognition.  This partnership is especially noteworthy since Ford announced earlier this month that it intends to invest $4.5 billion in electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids.  (Wired)

 

California’s New Self-Driving Car Rules Pragmatic, Reasonable, Measured, Onerous: California recently proposed self-driving car rules shook up the industry today and caused an outcry from the tech industry, which has heretofore enjoyed an effectively laissez-faire environment for testing.  The proposed rules will require autonomous vehicles to undergo tests by third parties that evaluate the ability of the software to drive safely.  There will also be a mandate for the owners of self-driving cars to undergo training, cars will carry data recorders, and the car owner remains responsible for any traffic violations.  The rule would also ban cars that would operate without human drivers – with will likely stymie other efforts to develop driverless cargo delivery services. (Wired)

Speaking of Lyft being the Rebel Alliance: At the beginning of this month, Lyft announced a new alliance with three global on-demand transit apps: Didi Kuaidi (China), Ola (India), and GrabTaxi (Southeast Asia).  Through this partnership, customers will be able to use their home country’s app to summon rides that are fulfilled by local affiliates (i.e. American travelers can call Didi Kuaidi in China using their Lyft app). (Fast Company)

Self-Driving Cars – Lego Brick Edition: A new concept – called Next – promises to upend urban transit by capitalizing on autonomous vehicle technology and increasingly-sophisticated navigation software to develop a new, modular form of urban transit.  Next seeks to develop self-driving electric pods that can be e-hailed by passengers – the pods could connect and detach to conserve energy and make traffic operate more smoothly.  In an interview with Wired, Tomasso Gecchelin said he anticipates Next to be ready for deployment by 2020.  However, Costa Samaras, co-author of Autonomous Vehicle Technology: A Guide for Policymakers, anticipates we’re still 15-30 years away from this tech.  (Wired)

First iPhone hacker never settles; builds self-driving car: George Hotz, the first person to hack the iPhone, recently built a self-driving car in his garage using off-the-shelf electronics and his proprietary software.  His software learns how to drive as well as the driver’s preferences (such as driving in the middle of the lane, keeping a certain following distance), through observing the human driver’s behavior before switching to fully autonomous mode.  Hotz intends to develop a $1,000 kit that can retrofit an existing vehicle – and eventually be sold to Tesla, if he and Elon Musk recover from this terse email exchange:

There was a proposal that if Hotz could do better than Mobileye’s technology in a test, then Musk would reward him with a lucrative contract. Hotz, though, broke off the talks when he felt that Musk kept changing the terms. “Frankly, I think you should just work at Tesla,” Musk wrote to Hotz in an e-mail. “I’m happy to work out a multimillion-dollar bonus with a longer time horizon that pays out as soon as we discontinue Mobileye.”

“I appreciate the offer,” Hotz replied, “but like I’ve said, I’m not looking for a job. I’ll ping you when I crush Mobileye.”

Musk simply answered, “OK.” (Bloomberg)

Photo credit: Bloomberg

Photo credit: Bloomberg

Another new, innovative idea from the taxi industry: Flywheel, a San Francisco-based company, released a groundbreaking new app that allows people to call a taxi from their phone.  Their cutting-edge product, TaxiOS, promises to disrupt the entire personal transportation industry, like no one has ever done before.  (Fast Company)

 

General Tech News

Open up the trunk: If you’re flying back to your hometown for the holidays, you inevitably stuffed your luggage with meaningful gifts for three relatives.  But buried underneath the 20 sets of clothes you packed for your three day trip is also a menagerie of kitschy souvenirs you picked up in the airport for random family members you forgot about (yours truly prefers to pick up keychains and Obama Christmas ornaments for Republican family members).  These inevitably become an annoying obstacle for TSA agents who are scanning them for weapons, explosives, and offending bottles of perfume while your private parts are scanned for even more contraband – Wired has the story on these x-rays with a fun exercise of seeing whether you could be a TSA agent. (Wired)

She loves you yeah yeah yeah: This year, Spotify is giving us one of the best Christmas presents yet – The Beatles’ 13 original albums will be available across the entire music subscription service based in Sweden.  "The Beatles needed to be on all streaming services if they were to reach out to a new generation of music fans," says Giles Martin, son of original Beatles producer Sir George Martin, who oversees the remastering of the Beatles' catalog for new formats. "Music streaming is the way most music lovers now enjoy their favorite songs." (Fast Company)

A world without passwords: After two decades of us trying to remember whether our password is “barbieboyy1” or “Barbieboyy3@” every time we log into our email, Google and Yahoo are reportedly calling off the game and working to create a world without passwords.  According to Fast Company, Google’s plan is to have our phones replace alphanumeric passwords, which are notoriously unsecure.  The idea is simple: just tap a button on your phone to log in.  We have a cheaper (and admittedly less secure) solution: next to the login screen, just list what your password requirements are.  (Fast Company)

360-degree VR tours of Yellowstone with NatGeo: National Geographic is partnering with Disney-funded VR company Littlstar to develop immersive videos of boxing matches, ballets at the Lincoln Center, and a visit to Yellowstone.  These videos allow you to look around by clicking and holding the mouse or using the arrow keys on your keyboard.  In the video below, you tour Yellowstone with your peppy, crunchy granola friend who got everything she’s wearing off of an REI mannequin and probably just returned from a 3-month backpacking trip in Southeast Asia. (Fast Company)

 

Clickbait Corner

Here are the 4 things you need to know about why this clickbait section works (Wired)

Uber's Rival Lyft Plans to Raise Up to $1 Billion in New Funds (Bloomberg)

Google patent reveals how its self-driving cars may communicate with pedestrians (Washington Post)

A programmer wrote scripts to secretly automate a lot of his job — and email his wife and make a latte (Business Insider)

Study Forecasts Self-Driving Cars to Take Off by 2021 (Body Shop Business)

Uber Hires Away Another Executive From Google Maps (TechCrunch)

 

Since you got this far…

 


Autonomer Weekly ~*~Thanksgiving Edition~*~: Stunning taxi/rideshare visualizations • Google and Uber talk Future • SF’s 2-mile tall utopian termite mound

Welcome to the first Thanksgiving edition of Autonomer Weekly!  This update is double stuffed to give you plenty of reading in the airport and under the dinner table when Uncle Mike starts discussing politics.  Use these articles as a chance to steer Thanksgiving conversations in a more neutral direction with prompts like:

  • Is it a natural, unalienable right to have a self-driving car that kills people?
  • How about that global warming? 
    • With follow-up question: “Did you know that Berkeley is studying whether Uber and Lyft are reducing greenhouse gas emissions?”
  • Did you know that the pilgrims were the first welfare queens? (h/t HuffPost Hill)
  • One day, cars will drive themselves and give you more time to bond with your significant other!  No, really, check out this article, grandma!

 

Autonomous Vehicles and Transportation Tech

Google (Alphabet) and Uber sit down to talk about the future together: In a dream come true, Uber’s Travis Kalanick and Alphabet’s Eric Schmidt sat down together to discuss the future of transportation at the Summit at Sea gathering in Miami.  Kalanick railed against the taxi medallion system, arguing that it keeps drivers stuck in “low-paying and inflexible jobs” and is not worth maintaining as it is.  Schmidt discussed Google’s “disorg” in its early years, when managers were demoted in order to make sure that no one had a boss – allegedly increasing productivity significantly.  And, hilariously, Kalanick provided this gem:

“Schmidt asked about Uber’s strangest story and Kalanick regaled the Summit Series attendees with an early incident of a passenger who found out that the driver’s wife was in the trunk of the car. Evidently, the new driver didn’t think his wife should be in the car while working, but the wife refused to get out of the car and be stranded in the middle of the city. So, he managed to convince her to climb into the trunk, thinking no one would be any the wiser. “The driver goes to meet the pickup and the customer has luggage” (the crowd broke out in laughter after this line).

Uber only found out about the incident after it was reported to the company through the poor (1-star) review.”

LA Mayor tests autonomous vehicles: And steals our hearts yet again.

“Enjoyed your creative/resume, but it looks like you’ve never used Uber before. What’s the deal?”: Thinking about applying for Uber? These are the kinds of questions you’ll have to answer, including: ““If there are 3 regular chairs and one broken chair and 5 people are entering a room, two of whom enter the room together, what is the probability that person X gets a regular chair?”

Volvo wants AVs on the road in 2 years, placing timeline ahead of Google and Ford: Volvo is driving the autonomous vehicle competition forward with tight timelines and deployment schedules for its own self-driving cars by aiming to cross the finish line in two years. 

Tesla Model S intervenes to prevent near-collision with taxi: But has to go back home to change now because it spilled coffee all over its suit when it slammed on the brakes. 

 

“Guys we’re still disruptors watch us disrupt this guys watch!!!”: said General Motors, while Google and Uber continued their conversation, pretending not to hear. Still determined to be a player, GM went back to disrupting its Cadillac CT6, the first vehicle to get its Super Cruise highway driving function. But Tesla has already released its largely identical Autopilot, and several other major automakers aren’t far behind. The author notes the difference between GM’s automaker AV model—successive versions of slightly-more-autonomous cars that you’ll still have to own—and Google’s tech company AV model—a moonshot release of a fully-autonomous shared fleet that you call when you need it but don’t own. And though their visions seem incompatible, it sounds like GM is actively interested in pursuing a partnership. (Google didn’t comment.)

Ethics for Engineers – The (Autonomous) Trolley Problem: 1) Is it okay to divert a runaway trolley, about to kill five workmen, onto a secondary track where it will instead kill one? 2) Is it okay, in order to save five people who will die without an immediate organ transplant, to fatally harvest those organs from a totally healthy, unwilling sixth person? These two confounding ethical questions make up the long-discussed Trolley Problem. The scenario's been rehashed to reflect the current ethical dilemma faced by autonomous vehicle engineers: 1) Is it okay to pre-program a vehicle to choose to kill someone, if it's necessary to save five others? 2) Is there any inherent victim prioritization necessary, since this is vaguely pre-meditated? and now 3) Will anyone ride in a car they know may choose to sacrifice itself and passengers for the greater good?

Colorado experiments with connected vehicles and infrastructure: Gov. Hickenlooper announced at the Colorado Transportation Matters summit that the state will invest $20 million in the first year of a smart transportation program called RoadX. Partnerships with the private sector will explore emerging technologies such as vehicle platooning, virtual guard rails, and smart lane markings. The prevailing thought seems to be that the industry will be doing it anyway, so the state may as well try to control it, and maybe down the road make some money off of it. It’s unclear as of yet whether this program will serve as a gateway to harder transportation tech investments.

Neo-con defends liberty to accidentally kill other people: Let the partisanation of vehicle automation begin. In response to the ethical dilemma of an AV deciding how to minimize unavoidable casualties and potentially sacrificing its occupant(s) (outlined above in the (Autonomous) Trolley Problem), a neo-conservative blog is flexing its rugged individualism and suggesting that this breach of (personal) autonomy is too great to be allowed. Nevermind that 94% of present accidents could be avoided and those that had to occur would be optimized to mitigate harm. Jabs aside, the concern touches on the very real challenge of convincing riders that they’re still safer in an autonomous vehicle, even if that vehicle may in a very very extreme circumstance intentionally bring harm to its passengers.

Self-Driving Cars are 5x more likely to have an accident, but it’s your fault: Two researchers have found that self-driving cars are five times more likely to have an accident than humans.  However, most of these collisions occurred at low speeds and with low-severity injuries.  The sample size of this study was small and included only 50 driverless cars in California versus the 269 million cars in America as of 2013, meaning that the confidence levels are not sufficient – nor is the technology yet advanced enough – to deliver a formal conclusion on the safety of self-driving cars. 

California DOT admits more roads equal more traffic: CalTrans recently referred to a policy brief that outlines findings that building additional roads generates more traffic.  This acknowledgement will hopefully be a step in a larger movement in California’s DOT to divert more funding to public transportation and cycling initiatives, helping Californians to leave their cars at home and take advantage of their temperate climate by embracing multimodal transit.

 

Shared Use Mobility, Startups, and the Sharing Economy

Presidential Candidates use Uber.  A Lot: What do Bobby Jindal, Martin O’Malley, Rick Perry, Bernie Sanders, and Scott Walker have in common?  First, they’re running for president.  Secondly, their campaigns use Uber in 100% of expenses reported under taxis/ride-hailing services.  Sadly, Lindsey Graham’s campaign is the only one to have used Lyft, which clocked in at about 31% of the time for Team Graham.

 

UC Berkeley leads climate impacts analysis of Uber and Lyft: Our beloved alma mater’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center, with Professor Susan Shaheen, is working with National Resources Defense Council to understand the climate impacts of TNCs.  The main focus will be to understand whether people are leaving or getting rid of cars because they can rely on TNCs, or if TNC drivers are adding to the congestion and competing with public transit.  The results will not be announced until 2016, but we can hardly wait. 

Analyzing 1.1 Billion Uber and Taxi rides in NYC: Todd Schneider writes software at Genius, but he also happens to have crunched the data on 1.1 billion NYC taxi and Uber rides to create beautiful visualizations of pickups and drop-offs by both services.  He also shows how the number of taxi and Uber trips rise or drop depending on weather and how they interplay—among the interesting tidbits is that, when it rains, Uber always provides more trips relative to its previous week’s average than taxis. 

 

Can’t we all just get along?: Sebastian Thrun, who helped to create Google’s self-driving car and co-founded GoogleX, found himself and his Tesla grounded when Uber blocked him from working as an Uber driver.  Thrun started driving for Uber in October in order to better understand the on-demand economy from a worker’s perspective – and perhaps to also gain some competitive intelligence.  The move is peculiar, however, since Google has previously invested heavily in Uber.

Silvercar Luxury Rentals (LAX): In this smarmy-yet-brilliant feature on Silvercar, Ian Bogost at the Atlantic describes a new car rental service called Silvercar, which rents Audi A4s at airports in LA, SF, Austin, and Dallas.  Silvercar’s slogan, “car rental that doesn’t suck,” perfectly encapsulates the feeling of exclusivity that give the on-demand economy its allure—and lends Silvercar its ethos as a disruptive force in the widely distrusted and reviled car rental industry.  One of the gems: “Silvercar urges me: ‘do NOT go to the purple ‘rental cars’ sign. That’s for those who’ve already given up ;)’”

BREAKING NEWS - BRAND NEW WAY OF LOOKING AT UBER: The folks over at Shareable made an as-yet undrawn comparison between Uber and the Galactic Empire.  Groundbreaking.  They even referred to Uber as a “Death Star platform,” and decried the on-demand/sharing economy as “shock and awe entrepreneurship” before promoting “platform co-ops” that are (clearly) the Rebel Alliance.  Yeah, we’re excited for The Force Awakens as well.

“What are indicators of the Death Star platform’s rising political power? Uber’s David Plouffe, formerly President Obama’s campaign manager, literally besieged Portland’s mayor, ultimately forcing him to create a favorable policy. Bloomberg’s “This is How Uber Takes Over a City” gives an eye opening account Uber's strong arm tactics. As of this writing this, Airbnb is running an $8.3 million campaign to defeat a San Francisco voter proposition (Prop F) designed to limit Airbnb’s negative impact on the city's skyrocketing housing costs. This lobbying activity is just the tip of the iceberg. Uber and Airbnb are using a good bit of their $10 billion+ collective war chest to hire a global army of lobbyists. In their language, they’ve put “boots on the ground” in hundreds of cities.”

Just tell us when UberTIE comes online.

Uber suspends operations in Paris during terror attacks:  Uber caught some flak from the public during the November 13th terror attacks in Paris, when it suspended operations for the safety of its drivers and passengers. 

Disney watch can sense what you’re touching: And that’s creepy.

 

AI, Machine Learning, and Singularity

Toyota’s $1b gamble to develop self-driving cars, robot helpers: Toyota is placing significant investments in autonomous vehicle technology and AI with the objective of becoming a leading force in robotics and autonomous vehicle manufacturing in the coming years. 

New maps of cities help your brain memorize city maps: Between Uber, GPS, Postmates and Seamless, we’re gradually losing our mental maps and the ability to navigate cities on our own.  The artist uses “practical mapping” to identify landmarks and neighborhoods on aesthetically-pleasing maps that are composed of each city’s major thoroughfares and overlaid with circles that identify neighborhoods and landmarks. This way you can know what you’re talking about when you yell at your Uber driver for going the wrong way. You can check out the full selection here.

Google just open sourced its AI work: In a stunning move, Google has decided to outsource its AI work. 

Never tell me the odds!: Han Solo might not have said it out of reckless abandon after all – perhaps he realistically knew that his brain wouldn’t adequately process the odds of bad things happening to him anyways.  According to the folks at Psychology Today, we really have no chance of understanding the probability that something odd will happen to us, or something.  Take notes for when your family tells you how dangerous it is to fly nowadays.

Work (Wobble Wobble)

72-year employee of Goodyear factory punches out for the last time: Job well done, sir. 

Independent workers move for portable benefits: Executives from Lyft, Etsy, SEIU, Coworker.com, and a variety of other businesses and interest groups signed onto a declaration in favor of creating portable worker protections and benefits to accommodate the 21st Century, largely on-demand workforce.

 

Urban Design and Futurist Dreams

The Two-Mile High Mega-Tower designed for San Francisco:  It was modeled after African termite mounds and never built, but we’re fairly certain there’s someone living in the Mission right now that’s preparing to launch the Uber for building crazy concept buildings who will do it.  It’ll probably be called Bilt or Billed and have this duck as its mascot.  The building, which was proposed in 1991, would cost $150 billion, encompass 1.5 billion square feet, and fit 1,000,000 people.  I mean, why the hell not?

SUM Zones: an Autonomer Original Thought

Greg's been driving for Uber and Lyft for the last several months, at first as a primary income source while he was between jobs, and now for a little side-cash. All told, it's been a rather positive experience: it's flexible, it's inherently social, it makes money off of a resource he already has, and it's a non-negligible bump to his regular income.

But it hasn't been perfect. In fact, at times it's been really, really stressful. At times risky, if not outright dangerous. On one occasion, it also became very expensive. In every case, this was caused by a frustration shared among the roughly 500,000 mostly-urban rideshare drivers in the US: while their platform and user base is rapidly expanding, the amount of space available at the curb is not.  When they can't find a legal space to pull into for a couple minutes—often, perhaps even typically, the case—they have to flip on their hazards and block a lane of traffic. Here, they cause significant congestion, and put approaching passengers, cyclists and themselves at risk. Or they can gamble, pulling aside to a bus stop, commercial loading zone, or a fire hydrant, and praying their passenger emerges before they're slapped with a hefty moving violation. Clearly, there's an issue to be addressed here.

This is the type of problem Greg and I like to think about; and in this case, we think we've come up with an answer. We’ve crafted a solution that finally gives rideshare the home on our streets that it deserves, preparing our transportation system for the shift toward shared, more-sustainable, and more-affordable transit. We call them Shared-Use Mobility (SUM) Zones.

You’re a rideshare driver? SUM Zones will keep you safe as you wait for your millennial to finish his cappucino. You’re a passenger with a physical disability? They’ll make the process of getting from the curb into your ride way, way easier. You’re a passenger without a physical disability? They’ll make finding your rideshare car more intuitive, decrease the time spent picking up the person splitting your ride, and ensure you aren’t hit by a cyclist as you enter the vehicle. You’re a cyclist? Everyone else will still suck, but SUM Zones will keep them out of your way. You’re a motorist who has nothing to do with the sharing economy? Support for SUM Zones is support for more-efficient, less-congested roadways. You’re a city? SUM Zones will show you’re dedicated to transportation efficiency, accessibility and emission reduction.

SUM Zones are a new vision for how we allocate space at the curb—where every ride begins and ends. Even as we see incredible increases in technology-based mobility and ridesharing, we haven’t yet seen a parallel reevaluation of how parking regulations help or hinder them.

Until now. A Shared-Use Mobility Zone is a use switch from long-term or metered parking to a space for rideshare of all types to wait for and drop off passengers. By converting a few on-street parking spaces, cities can ensure a safer and more efficient future for on-demand transportation.

Example: Here's a look at a one way street in Gramercy Park in Manhattan with a single lane of traffic, a bike lane, and a fully-occupied set of parking lanes. You're looking at a rideshare driver's nightmare. And it only takes one of them to shut down this entire street.

before_sumzone.png

But if we change seven parking spaces into five SUM Zones, we can virtually guarantee them a safe place to pull aside and wait for passengers or drop them off while closing out the ride, all while maintaining vehicle movement and bike-lane usability. 

with_sumzone.png

There's a ton of room for customization and creative use: signature painting schemes and signage, furnishings and technological tie-ins. Smart sensors or parking meters could monitor available spaces and direct cars to them. During off-peak hours, SUM Zones could accommodate package truck deliveries, preventing unnecessary double parking and reducing another major cause of urban congestion. 

And, of course, they'd be great for autonomous vehicle integration. 

If we've piqued your interest, check out our full write-up. The idea continues to develop, so there may be more to come.

Organic Rideshare: A Messy Experiment in Actual Ridesharing

After four months of driving for Uber and Lyft, I decided to finally become a rideshare driver.

It began out of both necessity and curiosity. I had just started a new job in Arlington, about 6.5 miles away from my apartment in Washington.  Since my first paycheck wasn’t coming for another 4 weeks, I decided to keep driving for Lyft after work.  Lyft sends paychecks every week, so I figured this would help pay the costs of working in an office again, namely: parking, dry cleaning, and lunch.

I decided to test the concept of organic rideshare, in which I would drive for Lyft and fulfill every ride request I received until I dropped off a passenger within 1 mile of home.  (Hat tip to Patrick Smith for coining the term)

At the least, Lyft would pay for my gas that day and I would get to chat with a new person or two.

At the most, I expected it would pay for gas, parking (a hefty $15/day), and lunch.

Either way, I would ostensibly be reducing the number of cars needed on the road and thereby play a part in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and congestion.

Before launching into the results, it’s worth discussing what rideshare really is and why it matters.

Right now, Uber and Lyft aren’t really rideshare services. “Rideshare,” when used to describe transportation network companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft, is a generous term, if not an outright misnomer.

I’m not the first to point this out—critics of the companies have long argued they’re more accurately higher-tech networks allowing unlicensed taxis to operate under the unquestioned halo of disruptive-startup ethos. 

The way I paid my rent from July-October bore very little similarity to the optimized-carpooling dream of Lyft founder and CEO Logan Green.  As a full-time driver, I almost certainly lured more customers away from taxis and public transit than from their own vehicles, perhaps with the notable exception of driving on Friday and Saturday nights. 

In the past four months, I was never a rideshare driver in the true sense of the word.  In fact, I might have been doing more commuting than everyone else on the road: if I wasn’t working (read: driving) with a passenger in the car, I was “commuting” to the next passenger.  When I ended up further than 15 miles outside of DC, I usually had to drive back into town before I could find another passenger.  That’s the same distance as my roundtrip commute to my new job, and this happened at least 5 times per week.

But then, we’re still in the transition period, where the TNCs need to focus first on establishing user and driver bases, and second on establishing commuting patterns that replace our single-occupancy-vehicle standard, which Uber has begun to test using its Smart Routes feature.  The next step – which is the step I am attempting to take on my own – is for the services to consider each driver’s destination and timeframe for travel (if they have one) to allow them to engage in the actual practice of rideshare on their way to and from work.

 

 

Organic Rideshare

I decided to test organic rideshare exclusively on my way home from work.    This is because, as any driver will tell you, driving for Lyft/Uber is out of the question if you’re on even the loosest timeline. 

Drivers are usually thrilled to see a passenger with luggage: it means a long-haul trip out to the airport and probably a ride back – and, depending on the airport, this can be anywhere from $30-90 in fares for two hours of work.  But sometimes it seems like this only happens when I have imminent plans or an event to attend; my first couple months of driving were a long series of missed meals, delayed (un)happy hours, and justified excuses to skip the gym.

Rideshare Metrics by SherpaShare

As you can imagine, anyone who’s serious about supporting himself via rideshare needs to track expenses, work-related tax deductions, time spent and earnings. SherpaShare has proven to be a great, free resource for freelance drivers, and the app also produced the maps for my trips that you see below. This was an entirely unsolicited, but well-deserved shoutout.

Day 1

Distance Traveled: 30 miles

Time Elapsed: 2 hours, 1 minute

Number of Rides Completed: 5

Amount Earned (after tips and Lyft fees): $42.04

Trip Notes: My first four rides took me on a giant loop through Arlington and my Lyft passengers seemed thoroughly uninterested in the fact that they were my organic rideshare guinea pig, except for Passenger #1.  (I told you I’d remember you, and I hope your cold went away!)

By the 1.5 hour mark I regretted that I had even began this experiment.  I even started to believe that I would never cross the Potomac again and that I was doomed to remain in Arlington County for the rest of my life.  Luckily, my fifth passenger requested a ride from Arlington to Northeast DC. 

His drop-off location was a little over 1 mile from my house, but I convinced myself that it was a rounding error and called it good. Usually I'm lucky just to end up in the same quadrant as home.

Day 2

Distance Traveled: 10 miles

Time Elapsed: 1 hour, 9 minutes

Number of Rides Completed: 2

Amount Earned (after tips and Lyft fees): $17.15

Trip Notes: Traffic was horrendous and my hourly rate would have averaged out to $15, which is less than the $22.50 from the day before.  However, I probably would have spent at least 30 minutes in traffic on my way anyways.

By spending an extra 40 minutes on the road, I paid for my parking pass and gas that day.  I also gave my passengers the gift of sitting through what they seemed to think were uncomfortable stories on NPR.  Top 40 stations didn’t seem to help either, but 5 stars were had all around regardless.

Day 3

NOTE: Time and distance adjusted to reflect if I had gone home directly.

Distance Traveled: 6 miles (Total: 12 mi | Last Dropoff to 1776: 5 mi | Last Dropoff to Home would’ve been: 1 mi)

Time Elapsed: About 1 hour, 4 minutes (Total: 1 hour, 9 minutes | Last Dropoff to 1776: 10 minutes | Last Dropoff to Home: 5 minutes)

Number of Rides Completed: 2

Amount Earned (after tips and Lyft fees): $18.09

Trip Notes: This was a difficult day to plan – as well as adjust numbers – because I wanted to go home before attending the grand opening of the new office of 1776 (a DC startup incubator), in Crystal City, VA. The map above includes the driving from my last dropoff (within a mile of home) to the event.

This was a frustratingly real demonstration of why using Uber and Lyft for actual rideshare doesn’t yet work with any sort of time constraint: I didn’t end up having time to go home before the event, and instead rushed down to 1776 after my last passenger.  However, I did adjust the numbers in the report to reflect the hypothetical of having gone home. Had I not been in such a rush, I could have dropped in quickly after my last passenger.

Day 4

Distance Traveled: 9 miles

Time Elapsed: 1 hour, 10 minutes

Number of Rides Completed: 2

Amount Earned (after tips and Lyft fees): $17.25

Trip Notes: This was the day that I realized I wouldn’t be taking $40+ home with me every day that I did organic rideshare. But that’s okay.

Fortunately, the route home was quite a bit more efficient on Friday, allowing me not only to make money while talking to some great passengers, but also to make it to happy hour in time while cutting carbon emissions (maybe). This, in a sense, is the ultimate goal: for ridesharing to defray the costs of each person’s trip, take cars off the road, and maybe facilitate a little social interaction, all in the course of a relatively direct trip to the driver’s destination. If I want to make a living off of driving individuals around, that’s fine too, but it’s not really rideshare anymore.

Moving Forward

In short, organic rideshare worked within the parameters that I set out at the beginning:

  • Complete every ride request
  • End day’s driving only once within 1 mile of home

Organic rideshare has the capacity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the necessity of urban car ownership, and in the process put a little lunch money into drivers’ pockets.  But it must be noted that this is still an imperfect, stopgap measure that doesn’t solve how we can most effectively use cars to move around our cities and move away from the paradigm of inefficient single-occupancy vehicle use. 

If one of my passengers had requested that I drive them 40 minutes north to suburban Maryland, I would likely have had to drive back to DC in an empty car and these maps would look very, very different. 

Furthermore, this demonstrates the unlikelihood that I would be able to successfully do “organic rideshare” on my way to work and be able to predict when I would arrive at my office.  I have a sneaking suspicion that this would end up making me very, very late to work – especially in the region with the worst traffic in the country.

And it’s here that we see a huge opportunity for TNCs to integrate a feature with the potential to revolutionize how motorists look at rideshare during their commutes. If a driver could enter a destination with a necessary arrival time, then scan for similar rides that could be completed along or close to that route, a huge number of new drivers could be brought into the rideshare mix, and we could really start to talk about taking cars off the road. Interesting to note, too, that when the drivers don't depend on it as a primary source of income, compensation only needs to cover expenses and a little incentive (like my gas and parking—and lunch if we’re lucky). This could keep the service significantly cheaper than current Lyft and Uber rides.

To gather more data, this experiment will continue in the coming months – if you have any comments or questions about my methodology or your attempts at organic rideshare, please reach out to us at contact@theautonomer.com or on Twitter at @TheAutonomer.

 

Autonomer Weekly: Teslas will now drive for you • Caregigging should be a thing • Paralyzed patients use brainwaves to use tablets

Autonomous Vehicles

Here comes Autopilot: Three maniacs crossed the country in a Tesla Model S in 57 hours and 48 minutes, with the company’s recently-released Autopilot function engaged 96% of the time. They averaged 51 mph, but that includes the time spent charging at Tesla Supercharger stations. Which means they spent a lot of time going 90, without hands on the wheel. Interesting to note that, when going into high-speed turns, the car tried to keep within lane lines, instead of aiming for the geometric center of the bend as humans do. “If I hadn’t had my hands there, ready to take over, the car would have gone off the road and killed us.” says Alex Roy, one of the three. He acknowledges, though, that this was to be expected when he set the vehicle to a speed above its maximum compensation threshold. Elon Musk congratulated the trio, got a dirty look from his lawyers, and briskly suggested people should maybe use this feature with caution. Roy seems to agree: “There’s no reason this car should be allowed to go 20 or 30 miles per hour over the speed limit in autonomous mode.”

Honda Sensing brings several self-driving features to new Civic: Radar cruise control, forward-scanning cameras, lane centering, collision-mitigating braking, and a few more. And it’s still so much more affordable than a Tesla Model S.

Autonomous vehicle enters Washington Bubble, gets support from Senator:  And makes it on the news, proving our theory that any half-completed concept can make it in(to) Washington.  A section of I-395 – which runs through Virginia to Washington, DC, was closed to other traffic and served as the test site for a group of connected vehicles testing vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure tech, along with autonomous driving features. Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) went along for the ride, expressing his excitement over the potential for such technology.  Last we heard, the car was sitting in a corner office on K Street calling Google and demanding a bigger retainer for its services.

Daimler tops list of automakers in Navigant’s autonomous vehicle rankings: And Tesla didn’t make the top ten. Navigant’s new report evaluates original equipment manufacturers (here, automakers) on twelve criteria. Daimler, which includes Mercedes-Benz, took the top spot for its semi-autonomous feature offerings, its Freightliner Inspiration autonomous truck, and the concept car that got so many excited about the aesthetic direction of self-driving cars. The report also draws out the differences we should expect to see between rural markets, where personal car ownership will likely continue to reign, and urban areas, where increasing density, congestion, and demand will trigger a shift to autonomous rideshare. Tech companies like Google and Uber weren’t considered in this report, and when questioned, its author indicated that he didn’t see them ending up as central players. We think he’s very wrong, but then, we haven’t released a report on it.

Nissan plan for self-driving rollout: 1) Highway Cruise 2) Lane Changing 3) ?? 4) Profit. Representing perhaps the most aggressive of the Japanese automakers in the collective foray into self-driving technology, Nissan has announced a stepped program of automation between now and 2020, when they project to have fully autonomous vehicles. CEO Carlos Ghosn lays it out: It begins with Piloted Drive 1.0 in 2016, which matches the highway single-lane cruising feature we're seeing emerge elsewhere in the market, along with traffic jam assistance. Piloted Drive 2.0 will manage lane changes and other, more complex functions. It's unclear to us how they plan to move from highway driving assistance to full autonomy, but hey, they're the engineers.

Self-driving licenses?: Researchers at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute presented the idea Thursday. They suggested the development of licenses to identify the conditions any given autonomous-ish vehicle is capable of navigating. Because some situations, like snow or heavy rain, produce considerably greater challenges for self-driving technology than typical road conditions, they feel that vehicles should be tested in a range of circumstances, and licensed accordingly.

Apple hires AI expert from Nvidia: Apple, in its continued hiring spree of experts in AI and machine learning, has snatched up an NVIDIA AI expert, presumably for their mysterious self-driving car project.

Self-driving car goes 1,500 through MX without human intervention: No word on whether Texas called in the national guard to protect America from job-killing robots.

Japanese panel considers AV regs: A Japanese panel is beginning to consider regulation on autonomous vehicle technology, according to a New Zealand newspaper that is apparently tuned into autonomous vehicle regulations in Japan.  

Rideshare/Gig Economy

Uber’s kind-of-employees sort of stage a strike-type-thing: A nebulous network of Uber drivers, organizing through Facebook and Twitter, tried to get fellow contractors to stay off the road, in a bid to pressure Uber to add a tipping option and raise the minimum fare. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t work very well – leading us to think someone should make an Uber for Uber drivers.  Wait, someone’s already done that.

Caregigging: Here’s an interesting look at the potential for the gig economy to advance gender equity in the workforce. Because women are disproportionately caregivers, they are more impacted by both the insufficient flexibility of 9-to-5 scheduling and the uncertainty of just-in-time scheduling. The 1099 economy may allow them more autonomy than previous models, but still falls short in the long-term planning category. The author turns to one of our favorite buzzthoughts, the portable social safety net, as critical to the continuation of the gig-economy. But really, why don’t we just giggify caregiving? Where is our Uber-for-funeral-attendance? What about FlashMom, or CoachNow? Which app do we download to instantly link to 30,000 people eagerly waiting to tell our kids a bedtime story? These are the hard questions.

Uber driver carjacked and kidnapped: An Uber driver suddenly became an on-demand getaway vehicle after he was taken on a whirlwind 15 hour crime spree at gun point.  We’d like to take a second to say that Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX) may not be so crazy after all for thinking crimes can be committed using Uber as the vehicle (see article on his UberXL-Mexican Cartel conspiracy theory here) – but this still requires a special brand of crazy criminal that certainly isn’t statistically significant.

Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning

“Don’t worry about evil robots,” say evil robot researchers: A recent Business Insider article asked 19 leading researchers of artificial intelligence to address the biggest myths and misconceptions around AI.  As expected, all of the inventors of our future robot overlords reassured us that their robot-making powers will be used for good rather than evil. 

Robots showing early signs of human-ish navigation skills: But robot dads still won’t pull over to ask for directions.  Researchers in Singapore recently announced that they have had some success in emulating human navigation skills using artificial neural networks – including the “grid” and “place” cells that help humans and animals to determine their location.

Man and Machine

A startup’s most important worker isn’t a human: GitHub employees use Hubot to do many things. Hubot is a personified bot program. There is a cartoon illustration of Hubot. Hubot knows about food trucks. Hubot performs everything that a human administrative assistant can do. Hubot wrote this summary.

Paralyzed patient navigates Google using brain waves, National Psychics Union calls foul: Using Bluetooth-connected neuroprosthetics, scientists have invented an implant that allows paralyzed individuals to browse the internet and use Android devices by interpreting brain activity.  The system operates on a Nexus 9 tablet and has been fine-tuned to allow users to mentally “click” on QWERTY keyboards and tiny links on screen.



Autonomer Weekly: EVERYONE is building autonomous vehicles now • Congress asking what Ooburr and Ayer Bee In Bees are • Your Facebook romance is really just an algorithm

Welcome to the Post-Brunch Nap Edition of Autonomer Weekly, which may soon be called the Autonomer Sometimes-ly. All of the transportation tech news in the past couple of weeks have kept us busy since we haven't yet found a way to automate Snarky and Wonky.  At least we have two great new names for our robot dogs that we apparently shouldn't kick.

Who's a good boy?

Who's a good boy?

 

Self-Driving Cars and Transportation Tech

Contra Costa County piloting driverless buses: The Contra Costa Transportation Authority plans to test several low-speed autonomous buses in an office park in San Ramon, with the potential for expansion should they be successful. Eventually, these busses could become the link between the Bay Area’s sprawling suburban edges and the regional transit lines that connect them with San Francisco. CCTA is working with the French company EasyMile and their EZ10 Shared Driverless Vehicles. Officials say they’re excited about the international partnership, though reports are proliferating of an unidentified coding issue that causes the EZ10s to leave for lunch at 11am and disappear for the rest of the day.

 EV Tourism: A report funded primarily by New York State examines the potential for region-wide planning of electric vehicle charging stations to undo some of the range anxiety that has historically limited the appeal of the grid-powered cars. Advocates and planners hope that clustering EV pickup and charging stations around regional commuter rail lines can fill some of the long-term travel desires of the urban population, while increasing the appeal of electric vehicles by offering a way for those on the fence to give them a try.

“We didn’t ask to be in the business of regulating a technology” says CA DMV: A Deputy Director at the California DMV spoke frankly about how little making teenagers wait three weeks for an appointment to spend two and a half hours in line to get an unflattering picture that will help them buy alcohol five years later has to do with regulating driverless cars. The DMV is moderately good at putting drivers in cars, but seems to be having trouble with the process that will ultimately take them out.

Google, Mercedes, and Volvo accept responsibility for self-driving cars: Three of the leading companies in autonomous vehicle technology announced this week that they intend to accept responsibility for crashes in their self-driving cars, resolving a critical question posed by regulators and pundits around liability issues for this technology.  Although these statements are not legally binding, they demonstrate the companies’ collective awareness of consumer concerns about trusting self-driving cars and may set a lasting precedent for companies accepting liability outright rather than leaving the legal environment murky.  This move is not just a public relations victory, but a political one – federal legislators and regulators are hesitant to restrict the development of autonomous vehicles and will be even less likely to place onerous restrictions on the industry if companies appear to have their bases covered. 

But Volvo wants self-driving car regulations: Volvo announced that it wants the US to pass clear laws regarding federal oversight of autonomous vehicles to eliminate uncertainty in the market.  They brought a ball and a mitt to the field, but no one has told them the neighborhood rules yet.

Google’s Co-Founder wears Crocs, likes robot cars: And he believes we’re all going to ride his cutesy car around one day.  The Guardian recently delved into Google’s self-driving car initiative and discussed the difficulty of selling self-driving cars to a public that either enjoys driving too much or feels apathetic toward the technology.  And, it turns out, Google is the third biggest lobbyist in the US, having spent $10m in the first half of 2015.  Imagine how much walking those lobbyists could do around the Capitol in Crocs—and how quickly DC’s final cobbler would go out of business.

Self-Driving Truck Cruises the Autobahn: Daimler recently showed off its self-driving truck technology on the German Autobahn.  The truck, a Mercedes-Benz Actros that is already manufactured in Europe, was updated with Daimler’s Highway Pilot hardware and software that allow it to perform hands-free autonomous driving on the highway and in traffic jams, while ensuring the driver remains alert if they begin to drift off to sleep.

 

Tax breaks for Tesla? Denmark says “nej, tak”: Last week, Danish officials agreed to eliminate tax breaks for citizens purchasing electric cars by 2020.  Under this determination, the price of purchasing a Tesla S would almost double from about $133,000 USD to $275,000 USD, as Danes purchasing electric vehicles will no longer be exempt from Denmark’s extortionate 180% car registration tax.  Tesla opposed the shift in policy, calling it anti-competitive and a threat to the electric vehicle industry in Denmark, but at press time it was unclear whether the Danish government could hear Tesla over the $99 million USD windfall they were preparing to spend on a bigger, wider, more exclusive safety net.  Tesla was last seen knocking on the door of the European Union, which it seems to believe is known for getting things done.

Volvo making waves in self-driving cars: Volvo announced the addition of Autoliv, an automotive safety systems producer, to its self-driving car research effort, Drive Me.  The Drive Me project currently has 100 self-driving cars and is expected to deliver test vehicles to families and commuters in Gothenberg, Sweden by 2017.

Toyota is also splashing around in the deep end: Earlier this month, Toyota announced plans to make some of its cars capable of what it calls “autonomous driving” on highways by 2020.  In this announcement, Toyota changed its position from calling the technology “advanced driver support,” which the company used to emphasize that drivers must remain alert and prepared to take control of the vehicle.  The shift to “autonomous driving” reflected growing industry pressure from Google and other leaders in self-driving car research to call the cars “autonomous vehicles,” even though Toyota’s car is “intended to help drivers, not replace them” and seems to pertain mostly to highway driving.

Everyone’s doing it, really: GM is going to allow its employees to ride around in autonomous Chevy Volts next year.

Including Elon Musk,our favorite AV-loving superhero(villain?) who wants to put us on Mars and completely revolutionize everything else we do: He says Tesla’s fully autonomous cars will be on the road in 3 years, at which point he’ll be 75% cyborg.

And Google.

 

Drones

Congress recognizes dire need for drone regulations, holds hearing instead: If it wasn’t politics, it would be comedy.  Greg live tweeted (@gregoryrrogers and @theautonomer) from a House Transportation and Infrastructure hearing in Washington, DC last week that discussed the dangers of drones flying in restricted airspace and the potential calamity that could result from drones colliding with airplanes.  Solutions have been presented to Congress and the FAA to counter this very, very, very real threat—especially considering the hundreds of near collisions between drones and aircraft every year—but the best the government could afford its citizens is an upcoming pilot project from the FAA. 

And now, a word from Greg’s Soapbox in the DC Bubble. Quite frankly, this will not be enough.  The FAA and Congress have stalled on rulemaking and concrete regulations for far too long, even though drone countermeasures are available on the market.  At this rate, it sadly may require a tragedy where hundreds of lives are lost to force Congress to pass anything of substance.  Stay tuned for a future article on this issue.

 

Rideshare/Transportation Network Companies (TNCs)

Lyft’s “Third Way” of transportation: Logan Green, CEO of Lyft, unpacked his vision for the future of Uber’s main rival in an interview with Technology Review that showcased his fascination with streamlining transit and the genesis of Lyft.  Green, an eternal transportation wonk, was inspired by the informal fleet of “buses” he observed in Harare, Zimbabwe – effectively, a primordial Lyft: private citizens using their own cars to move people around the gridlocked city.  Green describes his dream of a future when Lyft can be turned on as easily as pressing a button on a dashboard, passengers rely on Lyft for the first/last mile of their trips, and eventually self-driving cars are integrated with Lyft’s technology.

 

Uber leaves front door to database open, blames Lyft exec for *maybe* walking in: The short version of the convoluted story is this: an Uber security key was posted on a public website (Github) in May 2014 that granted access to as many as 50,000 driver records.  Uber didn’t discover the breach until September 2014 and disclosed the breach in February 2015 (perhaps assuming their drivers wouldn’t have wanted to know about it sooner).  Uber has filed a lawsuit against Lyft’s CTO Chris Lambert, claiming that a Comcast IP address tied to him was scraping data from Uber’s website.  For its part, Lyft claims to have had no involvement in the data scrape and has contested that Uber allowed its login credentials to be publicly posted for months in the first place—which may beg the question of whether Uber intended for this to happen.

Uber redesigns its driver app, calls it the “Uber for drivers”: This week, Uber announced a complete overhaul of its driver-partner app, which has remained relatively static since the company first launched.  It should be noted that the old version of the app turned drivers’ phones into bullying bosses: it shut off drivers’ music playing through Bluetooth whenever a ride began or ended, required multiple clicks to turn off driver mode (including an “are you sure you don’t want to make an even $50 today?” pop-up), and has been known by this writer to auto-accept rides when drivers attempt to sign out.  The new app is designed with the intention of simplifying the process of drivers finding rides, logging tax information, and managing their driver-partner profiles.

Captain Obvious reports greater sharing economy uptake among youth: A recent survey demonstrated that 68% of sharing economy workers are between the ages of 18-34.  Among the more fascinating findings of the study was that 48% of Uber drivers have a college degree, higher than the 32% across the general population—and that sharing economy workers make a median $18/hour in the sharing economy versus the $17.09 median in all workers.  However, as Bloomberg Business notes, the increased wages do not account for workers paying for their own car insurance, health insurance, and other worker benefits that are provided by traditional employers.

Congress asks, “What’s an Uber?”: This week we reported on Congress’ attempt to understand Uber and the sharing economy by calling a hearing where they could tie it all back to the Mexican border.  Statements by Republicans and Democrats illustrated the still-unclear position of both parties in regard to the sharing economy: Republicans foamed at the mouth upon seeing the “free market in action” but were paralyzed by their hesitation to accept new technology; tech-friendly Democrats expressed cautious optimism while taxi unions tied their hands behind their backs, particularly in the case of Rep. Frank Pallone.  Highlights: Marsha Blackburn couldn’t find herself in Politico, Pete Olson is afraid of Uber XLs idling at the Mexican border while they wait for Mexican cartels to fill their cars with trafficked humans.

 

Robots

Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up: Researchers at Georgia Tech are using the Life Alert Grandma as a model for training robots to sustain less damage when they take a tumble.  Like humans, these robots diffuse pressure from a fall by increasing the number of times they make contact with the ground—similar to how humans stick their hands out in front of them when falling forward.  At press time, it was unclear whether the idea of pillow-topped Roombas following clumsy robots around has been scrapped.  We’ll be right back after we file the Pillow Roomba patent to price gouge all of the helicopter parents and kick our robot dog, because that's probably okay now.

Please pray for Grandma, her life has been a lot quieter since the accident.

 

Digital Downer

Your love isn’t that unique: When people in the digital age fall in love, they tend to do the same things every time: post cat videos and other innocuous items on each other’s timelines to initiate contact, use it as a method to send messages and create opportunities to hang out, and then start dating and post photos of themselves dating on their timelines as they shift away from creeping on each other’s timelines to closely monitoring each other’s timelines so that they can snag that great picture from the beach as their next profile photo once it’s uploaded.  Yep, we’re onto you.

 

Your prize for finishing

We can't stop looking: We found this visualization of taxis traveling through New York City that is going to change your life.   The visualization was developed after tracking several NYC taxi drivers’ travel routes, total passengers, and earnings throughout the day.If you need us, we’ll be watching this all weekend.  

 

Mexican Cartels and Uber XLs: Congress Ponders and Panders, Sharing Economy Edition

What do an Uber driver, an insurance expert, the chief economist for a startup, and a thinktank director have in common?

Not a whole lot, but Congress decided to call them in to testify on the sharing economy anyways.

A congressional hearing was recently held on the benefits of the sharing economy, with a scarcely detectable slant in its GOP-influenced title: The Disrupter Series: How the Sharing Economy Creates Jobs, Benefits Consumers, and Raises Policy Questions.  Statements given by Members of Congress from both parties highlighted their still-ambiguous attitudes towards the sharing economy, as well as a great deal of confusion about what it does.

Republicans, led by Chairman Michael Burgess (R-TX), lauded the benefits of the sharing economy by citing platforms such as Uber and AirBnB as laissez-faire capitalism in action – organic responses to supply and demand. 

In his opening statement, Burgess emphasized the importance of understanding the sharing economy, stating that the sharing economy’s global performance will balloon from $50 billion in 2013 to more than $330 billion by 2020. 

Chief among Burgess’ concerns was the privacy of customers who participate in the sharing economy, particularly Uber’s alleged tracking of customers’ locations when they were not using the application.  Reflecting the larger Republican position on the matter, Burgess also emphasized that firms in the sharing economy were “inherently good at creating positive economic feedback loops.”  This was not lost on the Internet Association, which is currently holding its aptly-named Virtuous Circle conference attended by elected officials, policy experts, senior executives, and regulators in Menlo Park, California.

Burgess proceeded to give tech firms a rather juvenile warning, advising firms to continue exhibiting the good behavior that allowed them to skirt regulations in the first place, otherwise the government would have to intervene.  Although the specific extent and nature of this intervention was unclear, we can only assume it means being grounded from global market disruption for at least one week.

At the other end, Democrats led by Ranking Member Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) questioned the wisdom of allowing businesses in the sharing economy to skirt industry regulations and worker protections for the sole purpose of innovation.  Among Schakowsky’s concerns was the inability of workers to organize and engage in collective bargaining—she argued that workers on platforms such as Uber are “atomized” and disconnected from one another, preventing the use of traditional methods for demanding worker protections.

The reluctance of normally tech-friendly Democrats to fully embrace the sharing economy was demonstrated by Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ).  At the beginning of this year, Pallone was selected to be the top Democrat in the House Energy and Commerce Committee – which has jurisdiction over numerous tech issues – over Congresswoman Ana Eshoo (D-CA), a Silicon Valley Democrat who was widely expected to fill the position due to her Silicon Valley constituency and tech-centric policy focus.

Pallone, a New Jersey Democrat, cautiously questioned the benefits of the sharing economy.  He voiced concerns about customer privacy, the lack of transparency in Uber’s customer/driver rating system, and the potentially exploitative practice of classifying drivers as contractors rather than employees.  In an act of political self-defense that we will certainly see more of, Pallone also mentioned the thousands of taxi drivers in his district whose livelihoods were challenged by Uber’s business model.  In closing, Pallone argued that innovations must be paired with protections for all parties.

The panel of witnesses was an exercise in political heat diffusion, including: an Uber driver-partner, the Center for Economic and Policy Research (the only organization that truly urged caution in the sharing economy), the Internet Association, Intuit, San Francisco-based Thumbtack, and the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America

 

Uber’s choice to send a “driver-partner” – a contracted worker who does not hold employee status or the benefits thereof – was characteristic of the company’s larger approach to government relations.  Operating on the premise that it is better to ask for forgiveness than permission, Uber has largely dodged direct confrontations with the government by relying on surrogate government relations groups like the Internet Association to represent them at Congressional hearings, de-escalating tough questions about their practices by promising responses at a later date.  

Uber is also known for launching sometimes hostile campaigns against local governments that seek to regulate its activities or observe its impact on local transit—something that it did not have to address thanks to its choice of a pseudo-representative.

Uber’s driver-partner witness, Luceele Smith, was well-chosen for their purposes: she started driving for Uber in June 2014 and had previously worked in law and served in the Air Force for 8 years.   She is an example of how the sharing economy provides opportunity to its participants, which was reflected at the end of her testimony:

“With other jobs, the only way to earn more money is to take another job or get a promotion - which can take years. That freedom removes a lot of stress from your life. And that freedom is priceless. Knowing you can log in anytime and make money - that’s incredible. It’s unmatched.”

Unsurprisingly, any hard-hitting questions that the committee asked Smith were outside of her purview as a driver-partner.  She did not have authority nor control of privacy issues, price points, the driver-passenger rating system, or the number of drivers Uber puts on the road.

 

Yet in the most perplexing moment of the hearing, Congressman Pete Olson (R-TX) asked the entire panel of witnesses how the sharing economy aids human traffickers along the Mexican border, particularly in his hometown of Houston, Texas. 

The question, which carried a strange mixture of genuine concern and bordering on the absurd, triggered a brief silence in the hearing room as the audience attempted to visualize Mexican cartels calling Uber XLs to shuttle people across the border.

The question glanced off most of the witness, except for Michael Beckerman of the Internet Association and Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.  Beckerman argued that the sharing economy is unique because it creates communities that could potentially identify these issues and allow for fast intervention.  Baker, meanwhile, noted that regulations prevent taxis from aiding and abetting human traffickers and that any such rules should apply to Uber as well.

From a practical standpoint, the GPS tracking and precise identification methods required to participate in the sharing economy would likely discourage human traffickers from using services such as Uber or AirBnB.  Furthermore, if human traffickers were to use sharing economy services, the information collected on them in the process would be a great assistance to law enforcement agencies in locating traffickers and their victims. 

Meanwhile, Michelle Bachmann showed up in the middle of the hearing, presumably to have an audience for the humblebrag once she found her name in Politico.

After failing to find her name - or perhaps realizing that she was sitting at a hearing she had no intention of listening to - Blackburn slid out.

All told, the hearing ended as it began. Republicans lauded the sharing economy as the victory of capitalism over regulation, a Representative tied the topic back to the Mexican border, and Democrats made a half-hearted attempt to advocate for worker protections in the sharing economy and shared the concerns of taxi drivers in their respective districts. 

The hearing was the first in House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Disrupter Series, which we will continue to cover throughout this session of Congress.  Send us questions or comments by emailing us at contact@theautonomer.com or tweet us @TheAutonomer.  We regularly cover Congressional hearings, media events, and tech fairs in New York and the Washington, DC area and would love to hear from you.

Autonomer Weekly: Lyft and China join forces • Marines create Terminator dog • Pope Francis isn’t a real wizard after all

Autonomous Vehicles and Transportation Tech

Apple meets California officials to discuss self-driving car, electric iCars(?) by 2020: Hopefully this doesn’t mean that we have to change our Apple chargers again. Apple’s secretive self-driving car has emerged from the shadows in the last couple of weeks, most recently reports of Apple meeting with the California DMV to discuss its testing of self-driving cars and an expected ship date for its first electric car by 2019. 

80-year-old architect says self-driving cars, robots, and droneports will change cities: Famous architect Norman Foster, who designed Apple’s new campus in Cupertino, CA, is starting to sound like less of an esteemed architect and more like a sci-fi writer.  In recent statements, Foster has indicated that our future cities will utilize networks of drones (with docking/loading bays known as “droneports”), autonomous vehicles, and ultra-efficient logistics management by robots.  He failed to mention our hoverboards and self-driving cars, but you can’t win them all.   

Lyft enters new global partnership: Lyft and Chinese transportation network company Didi have joined forces in a play to counter Uber's rideshare dominance. By next year, Chinese Didi users travelling to the US will be able to use their Didi accounts, in Chinese currency, via the Lyft app, and vice versa. It's certainly an interesting alternative to Uber's aggressive international expansion, sacrificing some long-term growth potential to more quickly leverage existing networks and reach larger audiences. This could prove to be a good move for Lyft, which lags far behind Uber in market share and has opted to deepen community relationships in the US rather than expanding its operations internationally.

Automation, UAVs, and Robotics

Should’ve majored in art after all: Typists, bank tellers, and local government administrators were found to be the most likely to lose their jobs to automation in the coming years, according to a recent study by Oxford University and Deloitte.  Meanwhile, individuals whose jobs relied upon creativity, deal making, religion/spirituality, and social interaction were much less likely to lose their jobs to a robot – meaning that your barista who majored in Art might one day be in a better position than a local government employee. 

Robots may bring car manufacturing to U.S.; might actually have babies as heavy as anchors:  Rapid innovations in manufacturing technologies and decreasing costs for intelligent robots may cause car manufacturers to re-establish factories in the United States and Germany, according to Donald Walker, CEO of the auto supplier Magna.  With labor costs rising in China and economic trends reducing the potential profitability of operating overseas, automakers may opt instead to develop localized, high tech factories that shorten supply lines.  This will be especially beneficial to automakers who ship batteries for hybrid and electric cars, which tend to be difficult to ship across long distances since they are large and heavy.

Mooooommmmm can we keep him?: The Marine Corps has begun testing a four-legged robot that would not look too much out of place in a Terminator reboot.  Spot, which was designed by Google/Alphabet subsidiary called Boston Dynamics, was designed to be used alongside infantry in the field.  The project is being guided by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the same agency that helped to encourage the development of self-driving cars with its DARPA Grand Challenge in the past decade.

FAA dragging its feet on drones and hopes they’ll go away; Foxx clicks his ruby red slippers together: Because it’s obviously going to take a tremendous disaster to realize that it’s a bad idea to allow hunks of metal to fly through the sky with essentially no regulation – which makes us all feel a lot safer about flying, attending crowded events, or simply being outside.

Robosexuality: Sometimes, researching robotics gets weird.  It makes us ask questions of robot sexuality that we quite frankly cannot adequately answer.  This article is about why trying to ban sex robots is a misguided choice, and we will revisit it in a future article after studying the issue in a way that thoughtfully addresses this issue.  For now, here’s an article that discusses everything from teledildonics to robot gender/sexual biases, and artificial sexuality.  Not sure if those were actual phrases.   

Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning

Move Over, Siri.  Facebook is about to get creepier: Following on a recent announcement that Apple is doubling down on its efforts to develop a deep bench of machine learning experts to beef up Siri’s capabilities, Facebook has launched its own digital assistant initiative.  The project, called M, is intended to create a digital assistant that offers a more organic user experience as opposed to the scripted, artificial experience of interacting with Microsoft’s Cortana and Apple’s Siri.

15 Key Moments in the Story of Natural Intelligence: In case you missed it, BBC developed a fantastic multimedia primer on the history of artificial intelligence, its influential thinkers, and where we’re headed.

Weekly Downers

“SLUG BUG!”, yells Biden: The EPA has ordered Volkswagen to recall about 500,000 cars off of the road after it was discovered that the company installed software intended to trick emissions tests.  The software, referred to as a “defeat device,” is configured to only enact full emissions control systems when the vehicle is undergoing testing – otherwise, the vehicle would emit 10-40 times more emissions than during testing.  Volkswagen shares plummeted at the beginning of this week, reducing the value of the company by $18 billion in one day.  As a result, VW’s CEO has announced his resignation.  It has also come to light that the emissions

Nerd Alert

This is how we’ll beat Stanford this year: UC Berkeley researchers invented a miniature invisibility cloak that refracts light waves in order to conceal 3-D objects.  To do this Potter-esque feat, the cloak “wraps around an object and uses the antennae to divert light waves from its surface, rendering it undetectable to the human eye,” but I think we can just cut to the chase and call it magic.

Utopia/Dystopia?

Sweden reduces working day, no one is surprised.  

Los Angeles buys electric vehicles to race around, Mayor Garcetti calls dibs on the town Tesla: Because if there is one thing Los Angeles doesn’t have enough of, it’s cars. 

Porsche’s electric car can watch you at all times: Not to be outdone by Tesla in the luxury sports car market, Porsche has unveiled a new 600-horsepower electric car that not only goes from 0 to 60mph in 3 seconds, but can also be upgraded with an eye-tracking camera that displays the driver’s mood as an emoticon on the dashboard.  This emoticon can be posted to social media along with the driver’s route and speed, presumably to counteract the debilitating digital loneliness Porsche drivers’ friends feel while they’re on the road.  The more likely scenario is that Porsche installed this functionality to collect driver happiness data for use in future ad campaigns. 

Final Laugh

Pope cannot bless DC metro, proving he’s not a real wizard: In a final appeal to the greater powers of indifference, DC residents tried to petition the pope to bless their metro system – the logic presumably being that an Act of God is more plausible than an Act of Congress.  This may not be such a bad play, considering that Congress is on the verge of shutdown and God has never shut down the government to score political points.

Autonomer Weekly: Google X swipes left on automakers • Insurance companies of the future will track everything • Monkeys fight a drone and win

The Autonomer Weekly

**Welcome to The Autonomer Weekly – today’s update includes stories from the past couple months to get us up to speed as we move to regular week-by-week updates.

 

Self-Driving Cars/Autonomous Vehicles

Google X swipes left on Automakers: During a thinly-attended speaker series somewhere in the depths of the California Public Utilities Commission, Google X policy head Sarah Hunter shared insights into how the company leading a revolution in transportation is going to get its vehicles built.  Although it’s been in talks with major auto manufacturers—discussions with GM, Ford, Daimler, Toyota and Volkswagon were announced in January—it sounds like Google may opt to do it all itself. As a first step, Google is ramping up production of the comically-adorable prototype, currently produced outside Detroit by Roush. Hunter even hinted that they might operate a rideshare service instead of selling the cars directly to consumers, putting them in direct competition with Uber, whose policy head was at the same table.

Dear Humans, You’re terrible drivers. Love, Google: At the beginning of this month Google released its Self-Driving Car Report, revealing once again its ability to be disarmingly sweet while telling us that we (the human drivers) are the biggest threats to their cars and passengers cruising around Mountain View, CA and Austin, TX.  According to the report, Google’s AVs have now had 16 accidents, all of which were our fault. 

“We do not want to be big brother,” says insurance company through dash-mounted telescreen: We may soon be able to stick it [the bill] to The Man when it comes to car accidents in autonomous vehicles.  As self-driving cars hit the road, insurance policies and regulatory systems may be modified to punish manufacturers for cybersecurity flaws and accidents while discouraging passenger negligence in self-driving mode.  Insurance companies may track where and how much their passengers drive, and find ways to learn if passengers were distracted while in self-driving mode—though ostensibly only with driver consent.  The kicker comes at the end, when an insurance expert claims that the companies “do not want to be big brother,” which is exactly what we would expect big brother to say.

Google’s Self-Driving Car May “Phone a Friend” in Difficult Situations: Google filed a patent application last week for a system to query external parties for advice in tricky traffic situations. It looks like those requests could go to a data center, a human traffic analyst, or the car’s primary passenger (see: driver). The application was given a non-final rejection, which is essentially a call for revisions. Google is also considering microphone integration…for traffic data collection. “A Google spokeswoman tells me the microphones are specially tuned for sirens on emergency vehicles and are not used for anything else currently.” In a separate application, Google presented a micro-USB safe for surgical implantation into newborns “solely to help memorize keyboard shortcuts.”

Toyota – Jesus take the wheel: Toyota’s new long-run approach to developing self-driving cars turns out to be developing semi-self-driving cars, where the humans drive the cars with the help of their robot “guardian angels” (editor’s note: we’re already doing this ).  This new approach allows us to keep our steering wheels, accelerators, brakes, and everything else we’ve been using to collide with objects at a high velocity for over a century.  The new approach is obviously superior, as human error will never be outdated and Chad couldn’t spin donuts in his high school parking lot with a fully self-driving car anyways.

Honda cleared to test AVs on California roads: Honda joins the gang of automakers, now ten in total, approved to cruise their self-driving cars around California.  As you might expect, this isn’t the company’s first step into the AV arena; modified Acura RLXs, enhanced with cameras and sensors to enable autonomous driving, have been navigating the closed tracks of the Bay Area’s GoMentum Station, formerly the Concord Naval Weapons Station, since late March. No estimates yet on the release date of a fully-autonomous model.

An AV in every garage: Navigant Research released a report this week claiming that “85 million autonomous-capable vehicles are expected to be sold annually around the world by 2035.”  On first pass, this strikes us as ambitious, considering that annual global auto sales in 2013 were 82.8 million (the total number of cars produced was 87.3 million).  However, this may be plausible, considering the decreasing price of AV technology, the expansion of developing economies, and continued population growth. That said, decreasing personal vehicle ownership in favor of networked shared vehicles—the Uber-AV model—could lead to dramatically different sales scenarios.

 

Rideshare/Transportation Network Companies

Pathway to Unionization for Seattle Rideshare Drivers: Rideshare drivers may gain the right to unionize if a recently-introduced bill passes the Seattle City Council.   The bill, introduced by Seattle City Councilman Michael O’Brien, would allow a nonprofit organization to represent rideshare drivers in Seattle with for-hire vehicle licenses—assuming that the majority of drivers indicate that they want to be represented. A bill to require single-origin espresso in all e-hail vehicles was narrowly defeated, following concerns about the ability to ethically source the carbonation in the attendant soda water.

The Mission to Civilize: Fast Company published a must-read article following an extensive interview with Uber CEO Travis Kalanick.  The long-form piece is an unflinching analysis of Kalanick, delving into his past successes and failures, infamous gaffes, and his quixotic crusade to change urban transportation that, in case you missed it, is actually working. Bonus: After reading, TK seems slightly-less completely unlikeable.

Uber apologized to Carnegie Mellon for stealing its friends: Unfortunately, the only thing the company could do to make up for poaching CMU’s professors was to donate $5.5 million to the university.  This donation will support a new robotics faculty chair and sponsor three graduate fellowships – a move which could have been an effort to extend an olive branch to the university, reinvest in the department to aid in recruiting future talent, or both.  Either way, this partnership is likely to aid in CMU’s reconstruction of its robotics department as long as both parties feel comfortable going back to the well.  Having an Uber robotics facility right down the block probably doesn’t hurt that recruitment effort.

Greg’s painting his Mazda yellow: And the kids aren’t allowed to chew gum on the school bus.  Uber’s new initiative to implement “Smart Routes” in San Francisco does almost exactly what a bus does, which brings us right back to square one just like we had hoped.  This new service is a component in Uber’s objective of eventually creating a system of “perpetual rides” in which the driver (and eventually autonomous vehicle) is constantly carrying a passenger—eliminating wasted time, gas, and labor while saving the space that may otherwise have been used on parking spots.

 

UAVs/Drones

Chimpanzee UprisingIn an incident that will probably inspire the opening scene of the next Planet of the Apes, monkeys at the Burgers’ Zoo in The Netherlands took down a drone through a coordinated and pre-planned attack.  Yes, we’re serious.

 

Our Answer to the Chimps: Drones push the boundaries of human innovation every day, as well as the boundaries of airspace regulation, Christmas budgets of grandparents, privacy in our backyards, and—most recently—patio furniture.  A British man recently built a helicopter using 54 drones, a lawn chair, and an umbrella.  With apparently no money in the budget left for a marketing consultant, the man calls his contraption “The Swarm Manned Aerial Vehicle Multirotor Super Drone” - which, in our opinion, is a name that could have probably be a little more thorough.

 

Robotics, AI, and Automation

Apple Launches a Hiring Spree for AI Experts: Apple has allegedly started a recruitment program to hire up to 86 artificial intelligence experts specializing in machine learning.  Apple has significantly expanded its number of machine learning experts in recent years, an indication that the company is working to build a competitive edge against rivals Microsoft and Google.  According to Silicon Valley Business Journal, Microsoft’s Cortana and Google Now digital assistants may have surpassed Siri in intelligence – likely motivating Apple to expand involvement in the arms race for AI experts.

Fully Automated Chinese factory 162.5% more effective than it was with laborers: The automated factory now requires only 60 employees to operate rather than the initial 650.  It is believed that the factory's employee count could one day be reduced to 20, which makes us wonder why we even bothered getting out of bed this morning.

Happy Monday, everyone.

AVision: Rideshare and Autonomous Vehicles

Full Disclosure: For the last few months, I've been driving for Lyft and Uber. While it's not quite the lucrative gig-economy lifestyle promised by the advertisements that lured me in, I appreciate it for the low barrier to entry and flexibility.  I do this with the knowledge that five to ten years from now, driving for rideshare services may no longer be an option.  In today’s post we will explore why.

The Rideshare Disruption

Rideshare as we know it began six years ago with two entrepreneurs, a Mercedes S Class, a driver and an iPhone app, and has since exploded in popularity. Transport network companies like Uber and Lyft have positioned themselves as low-cost alternatives to traditional transportation options, and the market has responded.  Emerging as an often controversial answer to widespread frustration with inadequate public transportation infrastructure and disillusionment with the taxi industry, rideshare companies have expanded their presence across the globe and rewritten the rules of urban transit using only an app and contracted drivers offering rides in their own vehicles.  This disruption has shifted how people get around cities in numerous ways, creating new opportunities for movement in urban transportation networks that have long been static.  Capitalizing on this new service, consumers are now using rideshare as a temporary substitute, complement, or even complete replacement for other transit options.

When public transit systems break down or are otherwise disrupted, its users turn to rideshare services to get to work on time, sometimes at a steep price.  And, despite strained relationships with numerous local governments, some American cities have started partnering with Uber to bolster their public transit systems, particularly in the first and last miles of urban commutes.  Customers are also turning to Uber and Lyft for mid-range commutes, which can be cheaper than buying a car

Many users also rely on rideshare for their weekend activities, allowing even those with cars to avoid the hassle of parking downtown and the danger of drinking and driving.  This allows passengers to circumvent some of the cost and safety considerations that plague the taxi industry, while also beginning to address race and destination discrimination issues perpetuated by some taxi drivers.

Rideshare is now allowing residents of lower-income communities to access affordable and reliable transportation instantly with a smartphone.  As smartphone ownership continues to increase among the American adult population, including 50% of Americans earning $30,000/year or less and 71% of Americans earning $30,000-49,000/year, rideshare services have the potential to compensate for the gaps in public transportation throughout metropolitan areas.  This is especially important following a recent report from the Brookings Institute that revealed only 30% of jobs in the country are accessible within a 90 minute ride using public transit.  Now, limited only by the time it takes for a driver to arrive, low-income communities have the potential for (but not the guarantee of) being reconnected with the larger city, empowering residents to travel where bus and rail lines fail to adequately serve them. 

Smartphone Ownership Highest Among Young Adults, Those With High Income/Education Levels

 

But an even more significant change in transportation is to arrive in the form of self-driving cars that will be hailed through rideshare apps like Uber and Lyft.  As the technology behind self-driving cars (also referred to as “autonomous vehicles” or “driverless cars”) matures, urban transit will likely shift toward these automated rideshare services, revolutionizing riding in cars just as much as Uber and Lyft revolutionized getting into them.

Automated Rideshare

Under this new model, rideshare companies will replace drivers using their own cars with fleets of company-owned self-driving cars.  Following Elon Musk's prediction that Tesla could be producing fully autonomous vehicles in three years, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick reportedly offered to buy 500,000 of them in 2020, perhaps entirely replacing its current 160,000 drivers within one phase of deployment. 

This model has been foreshadowed by a slew of public-private partnerships and corporate investments in autonomous vehicle research and development, principally led by tech companies and car manufacturers.  Recent developments include Google’s famous self-driving car, Uber’s controversial partnership with Carnegie Mellon University to create the Uber Advanced Technologies Center in Pittsburgh, and stirrings in the analyst community suggesting that Tesla is weighing a shot at developing its own autonomous vehicle rideshare system, hypothetically dubbed Tesla Mobility.  And, on August 25th, Uber announced yet another public-private partnership with the University of Arizona, facilitated by Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, which entails a $25,000 donation to the College of Optical Sciences in return for cooperation in mapping and optics research. 

The motivations behind Uber’s interest in autonomous vehicle technology are clear: self-driving cars will not demand higher wages or benefits, are less prone to accidents, will drive themselves to and from the gas/charging station, and, most importantly, eliminate the largest operational expense of rideshare services: paying the driver.  Furthermore, Uber’s brand and global presence will allow customers to continue using the same e-hailing app and will reduce barriers to product engagement.  This would be a boon for Uber and its customers alike, slashing the costs of operation and labor while increasing profitability and lowering fares for passengers. 

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick seems to agree, having stated at Code Conference in May 2014:

"The reason Uber could be expensive is you're paying for the other dude in the car. When there is no other dude in the car, the cost of taking an Uber anywhere is cheaper. Even on a road trip."

But positive attitudes toward autonomous vehicles are not universal.  While chatting with my rideshare passengers, I often have the opportunity to hear their opinions about this technology and the future of rideshare.  Many suggest they are still concerned about putting their lives in the hands of robots, saying that it would be “unnerving” or “dangerous.”  This attitude prevails in spite of the relatively safe track record of Google’s self-driving cars which, according to Google’s August 2015 report, have been involved in 16 minor accidents in 6 years and 1.5 million miles of autonomous driving—in each of these cases, Google’s cars were not found to be at fault.  

When I share these statistics, my passengers often say that they still like having human drivers because they trust the driver will want to arrive at their destination safely.  They are not alone in their hesitation: a recent study by Nerdwallet showed that only 50% of men and 37% of women are interested in eventually owning a self-driving car, and 50% of people would not pay more for full autonomous vehicle technology when purchasing their next car. 

 

Furthermore, people are far less comfortable about putting their kids in autonomous vehicles, indicative of a deep public confidence issue:

“As another measure of trust in autonomous car technology, we asked whether people would put a child in a self-driving car alone to go to school or a friend’s house. Only 6% gave a thumbs-up to that idea. Most people (76%) said no, and the rest were unsure.” (Nerdwallet)

The increased media coverage of self-driving cars has also fueled skepticism and opposition from pundits and consumers alike, drawing attention to the potential shortcomings of the technology.  In fact, a recent study by Gartner has shown that autonomous vehicles have begun to mature in the public eye to the point that they have peaked in their “hype level” of inflated expectations and, according to Gartner, autonomous vehicles will be met with deflated expectations by consumers in the coming years before the public attitude finally shifts toward more stable outlooks.

In this sense, the uptake of self-driving cars and automated rideshare is not just contingent on technological development, but also a well-coordinated campaign that reassures customers of the safety and superiority of automated vehicles.

The Driverless Elevator

Convincing consumers to adopt technologies that replace humans with automated systems is not a new challenge.  Planet Money recently discussed concerns about self-driving cars in the context of the widespread implementation of automated elevators in the 1940s.  Up until then, elevators were hand-operated by elevator attendants who manually operated the doors and controlled the elevator speed.  And although we take elevators for granted now – as well as running into them at the last minute – it was once dangerous to jump through the closing doors since human operators could not always react in time to prevent serious injury. 

However, safety concerns alone were not enough to trigger a massive transition to automated elevators, which were invented over 50 years before properties began to buy them.  Instead, the shift was triggered by the volatile relationship between elevator operator unions and management, including a strike in 1945 that virtually shut down 2,015 Manhattan office buildings, bringing the workday to a grinding halt as an estimated 1.5 million employees flooded into the streets and spent the day at bars, cinemas, and shopping centers.

To address the issue of both safety and labor stability, companies began to install automatic elevators that reacted almost instantly to prevent humans from getting caught in the closing doors and were unable to strike or form labor unions.  Of course, people were at first confused when they did not find attendants in the elevator – Planet Money mentions stories of people wandering around lobbies, looking for an elevator attendant.  Elevator companies started running campaigns promoting the safety and efficiency of these “driverless elevators” and the public eventually forgot there was ever “another dude” in the elevator.  

August 1952 Advertisement for the Otis Autotronic Elevator that mentions “Savings for each non-attended elevator average $5,500.” (Vintage Ads)

The key difference here is that we can pick our preferred mode of transportation much more readily than an elevator.  Those who are skeptical of self-driving cars will have the option to continue buying manual vehicles or riding in traditional rideshare services—that is, until riding in self-driving cars becomes unavoidable, either because manual vehicles are outlawed for safety reasons or are no longer manufactured (or licensing becomes prohibitively expensive or difficult).    

The Uber Playbook

Uber’s objective in deploying the first wave of its self-driving car service will be to convince its passengers that they are not using a new service, but simply an upgraded version of Uber that is safer, more reliable, and more efficient.  This initial driverless service will likely be designed to comfort passengers by emulating some of the aspects of riding in a traditional Uber: the seats will face forward, an embedded AI system will respond to directions and voice commands as a driver would, and an emergency stop function will be easily accessible.

Yet Uber’s greatest challenge will be that people in urban areas, particularly millennials who are notoriously averse to car ownership, likely will not be exposed to autonomous vehicles by someone they know in the few years following their release.  Instead, many people will probably experience their first ride in an autonomous vehicle through an automated rideshare service—particularly since Uber is currently exploring its own production of autonomous vehicles to make the technology cheaper to implement and because Uber, currently valued at $51 billion, could likely field its own fleets of autonomous vehicles.  Much like Uber and Lyft in their startup phases, these services will have to rely on their earliest customers to generate interest and trust in their safety through word of mouth (however, it may also be helpful if regulators did more than say that they might be legal)

Furthermore, Uber is likely to encounter significant resistance from its current drivers who – as we mentioned earlier this week – have already filed lawsuits regarding their status as contractors rather than employees with full wages and benefits.  As we will discuss in future articles, this will erupt into a larger political battle and international dialogue about the nature of work in the twenty-first century, and whether there is a social responsibility to keep people employed, even when automation objectively becomes cheaper, safer, and more effective. 

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick already came under fire last year for his aforementioned “other dude” speech lauding the potential for autonomous vehicles to replace drivers, after which he backpedaled and tweeted:

The backlash was fierce, and the public railed against Kalanick’s cold calculation and lack of empathy for the drivers that helped to build his company. 

In the coming century, such tone-deaf statements by executives will be a stumbling block for tech companies that serve broad demographics, particularly if people they know are being unceremoniously replaced through automation.  To combat this, companies such as Uber will need to show not only that their automated services are safe and desirable, but also that they are conscious of their social impact – a difficult task when the financial stability of as many as 160,000 contractors is on the line. 

For this reason, Uber will need to put a human face on their autonomous vehicles, espousing their safety and virtues, much like Google’s disarmingly adorable self-driving car and its feel-good video ads that emphasize mobility for seniors, children, and the visually impaired. 

The Human Element

Currently, 55% of women and 37% of men are concerned that self-driving cars would not be safe to use.  This is indicative of a larger obstacle to widespread use of autonomous vehicles: although the technology has been relatively safe throughout its testing and may eventually eliminate up to 90% of car accidents, it will be important to pair empirical evidence of their safety with our instinct to trust other humans with driving our vehicles.

We tend to trust that the humans controlling our cars, trains, and airplanes share our instinct for self-preservation.  We intuitively know that our airline pilots want to land safely and that our subway operator will not plow into a train at the next station because they also want to return home safely to their loved ones each night. 

What we will come to realize – and what automated rideshare companies will likely tell us – is that pilots, drivers, and train operators are already aided every day by automated technologies such as autopilot, crash avoidance features, and positive train control (PTC).  From this perspective, it naturally follows that we continue automating transportation to make it safer.  Automated rideshare companies will likely emphasize the human motivations behind this technology: how the engineers wanted to save the 33,000 lives lost to car accidents every year, how a child can get home from school safely in a self-driving car, and the value of the time recovered from the frustrations of driving like sitting in traffic, looking for parking, and taking the car to a mechanic.

What Happens to the Drivers?

When cars become fully automated and no longer need humans to operate them, the 233,000 taxi drivers and hundreds of thousands of rideshare drivers in the United States will find their jobs in danger.  Driving taxis, long known to be a reliable source of work for new immigrants and unskilled labor, will become an even more endangered occupation than it is today. 

As mentioned previously, rideshare drivers will not be spared from this seismic workforce shift either.  Some – though far from all – drivers have already voiced their opposition to Uber and Lyft’s current model designating them as 1099 contractors rather than employees entitled to full wages and benefits.  But this may just be the automatic elevator paradox repeating itself: by demanding to be conferred better compensation and working conditions, drivers may actually be encouraging Uber to rush ever faster toward simply doing away with human drivers and deploy autonomous vehicles as soon as possible.  We have already seen this take hold in the service industry, with companies looking to replace their workers with automated check-out stands, e-waiters, and even burger-flipping robots that can make a burger every 10 seconds.

 The Future

The rideshare model flourished under Uber and Lyft as an effort to connect people and share resources in order to travel faster, cheaper, and safer than previous systems allowed.  Despite our initial concerns about riding in a stranger’s car that we summon with a smartphone, we have come to recognize rideshare as a safe way to travel in cities around the world.  Presenting an alternative to driving our own vehicles, these rideshare services have challenged the mainstay of car ownership by using smartphones to find freedom and connect passengers with “Everyone’s Private Driver” and “Your Friend with a Car.”

In the same spirit, we may choose to adopt autonomous vehicles – and rideshare services powered by them – if we find that the benefits of autonomous vehicles exceed those of using human drivers. 

Although the potential for autonomous vehicles to be used in conjunction with rideshare is tremendous, it is by no means inevitable.  As mentioned previously, considerations remain in terms of opposition by labor, regulatory issues, complex insurance policies, consumer uptake of the technology, and a variety of other factors.

As we will discuss in upcoming posts, there is also a chance that the public will choose not to adopt autonomous vehicles, opting instead to merely use highly advanced driver assistance features that intervene only when collisions are imminent.  Or perhaps the transition to self-driving vehicles will happen so gradually through small, incremental leaps that the transition to full automation is barely noticed, and removing the operator of the vehicle seems to be a foregone conclusion.

Nevertheless, we have before us an unrivaled opportunity to democratize urban transit through automated rideshare, which will eliminate location discrimination, reduce the cost of urban travel, and virtually guarantee safe movement across cities and throughout the world. 

In the next few decades, the driver license may become a relic that is replaced by the smartphones in our pockets and a rideshare subscription service.  The financial and logistical burden of owning a car in a metropolitan area will no longer be necessary, as automated rideshare services will have a fleet of vehicles perpetually circulating the city, ready to pick up passengers at a moment’s notice.  If this comes to pass, one day our gridlocked city streets will look like this:

(Created by Kurt Dresner and Peter Stone from the University of Texas at Austin Computer Science Department)

And, with any luck, I will never have to teach my children how to drive in that.

 

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