Uber Dives into yet Another Idiotic Venture
As a self-proclaimed petrol head it’s hard to look into the future of motoring with optimism. I find it hard to fathom the reality of autonomous vehicles, not because I don’t think it’s possible, but because for one, I love driving, but mainly because I am a huge control freak. The idea of another human driving my car sends me into a cold sweat, let alone a computer. Companies like Google, Ford, and now Uber have all thrown their hats into the ring and are racing to develop autonomous vehicle platforms. Their continued success leaves me reeling and haunts me more than Freddie Kruger, timed math tests, and inevitable loneliness combined. That being said, I will try to be impartial with my opinions of Uber’s recent bombshell of an announcement.
Uber has been the frontrunner of ridesharing services since the genesis of the industry nearly 6 years ago. Their quick and successful growth has satisfied hordes of drunk people, all while pissing off legislators, unions, cities, and probably entire sovereign nations in the process. They have dabbled in food and item delivery, helicopter shuttles, and even yacht chartering by using vehicles owned by humans, and presumably driven by their human owners (although some would classify murderers as animals.) Now they say that they are ready to take the humans out of the equation by acquiring tech brand called Otto, and partnering with a little Swedish car company called Volvo. Although the idea of an autonomous vehicle platform isn’t new, the overall idea of taking humans out of the driver’s seat is pretty troubling for a majority of the general public, including myself.
On August 17th, Uber’s Travis Kalanick announced Uber’s plan to have automated cars driving around San Francisco, Pittsburgh, and Palo Alto within the coming weeks. He proclaimed, “ride-sharing helps cut drunk driving,” and that Uber, “…has made mass carpooling a reality. By getting more people into fewer cars, we can reduce congestion and pollution in our cities.” He then immediately switched tone and said that although humans have made this rideshare application giant possible, “human error accounts for 90 percent of these accidents.” Travis has very compelling points but there are many hurdles to vault before Uber is able to launch a successful, and financially feasible campaign for automated rideshare services.
Diffusion of Innovations
WELCOME TO MARKETING 2340 I AM PROFESSOR MERRITT
Diffusion of Innovations is a business theory that is represented on a bell curve. The curve is made up of 5 different elements: The Innovators, the early adopters, the early majority, the late majority, and the laggards. The innovators represent the first 2.5% of the populace, the early majority represents the following 13.5%, the early majority 34%, the late majority 34%, and lastly the laggards which make up the final 16%. “The Chasm,” or the point where mass adaptation of a product must be achieved occurs between the early adopters and the early majority. If a product cannot gap “the Chasm,” it is destined to fail.
Consumers have to feel comfortable riding in a fully automated car. Uber has stated that these fully autonomous rides will be monitored by a driver who will be sitting in the driver’s seat… for the time being. But when the time comes to remove the driver I believe that a majority of riders will not feel comfortable riding sans driver. According to a Washington D.C.-based polling firm Morning Consult, out of 2001 registered voters, only 26% of respondents said they would buy a self driving car. Will Uber and Lyft be able to capture the Innovators? Possibly, but I struggle to believe they will be able to garner enough support to propel themselves across the chasm.
Take the aviation industry for example. As a pilot, I understand that almost all commercial flights rely on aircraft with highly automated systems. If required, an Airbus A350 could fly an entire flight with very minimal input from the pilots from takeoff to landing. Human interaction is required to plan the flight and to input the route into the navigational computers, but even these days these actions are highly automated. “Pilots flying the [Boeing] 777 agreed that they spent about 7 minutes for a typical flight actually ‘flying’ the aircraft, meaning touching the controls,” Missy Cummings, a former military pilot and an unmanned systems researcher at Duke University’s Humans and Autonomy Lab and at MIT’s Humans and Automation Lab, “The Airbus pilots stated that they ‘flew’ their aircraft about half that time.” We can all agree these technological advancements are marvelous. Orville and Wilbur Wright would turn in their graves if they knew that this feat of engineering was ever possible. The issue is regardless of time spent controlling the aircraft (or lack thereof), no one would step foot on a commercial flight without a human in the captain’s chair. Why? We aren’t comfortable putting our lives in the very capable 1’s and 0’s of a robot. Flying is eons more predictable, and straightforward for a computer to understand than driving on the roads around town, but it will take decades before anyone is going to step on to a fully automated aircraft.
Uber struck a partnership with Volvo for $300 million. $300 million is a large investment for a company that has reported to be in the red for sometime now. In a Volvo press release it was stated that Volvo would manufacture and sell the XC-90 SUV to Uber as a test bed for their autonomous vehicle platform. This is a monumental and expensive shift in Uber’s business plan as Uber has solely operated using vehicles provided by their drivers. Although purchasing their own vehicles will allow Uber to test an autonomous vehicle platform, it is monumentally more expensive than employing humans to do the same job in their own vehicles. Not only is the acquisition of a fleet of Volvo XC-90s going to be expensive, now Uber has to consider maintenance costs, registration expenses, and increased insurance liability. Sure, this is all in the spirit of investing in the future of the automotive industry, but I do think this investment is a bit premature.
No one can make the argument that autonomous vehicles aren’t safe when operated in a sterile environment. When I say autonomous vehicle I mean vehicles designed for the sole purpose of operating without human intervention and uses LIDAR or other highly technical lasers and gadgets. A Tesla fitted with autopilot is not an autonomous vehicle; it’s a toy for lazy people. Autopilot in its current form is very unrefined and has a strange hunger for Harry Potter fans that only heads can satisfy. Autonomous vehicles such as the ones being tested by Google and Ford have been proven to be very capable on the open road. They obey the laws, stop for pedestrians, and perform all of the necessary tasks required to operate on open roads safely. The issue is they perform these tasks a little too well, and they are actually dangerous because they aren’t programmed to bend the law like humans do. Common infractions include: obeying the speed limit, being extra cautious around corners, stopping for pedestrians; you know all of the things decent humans are supposed to do. All of the computers, sensors, and programs that run on these vehicles struggle with understanding that us humans live in a constant state of hypocrisy on the road. Sometimes we obey the speed limit, other times we go 20 over. Sometimes we give lots of room between us and the person in front of us, BMW drivers tailgate. It’s this human unpredictability that will make autonomous vehicle operation difficult. Of course the nerds who are working on these cars are starting to program human-like gestures into the software, but that can only do so much. The only way this issue can be completely resolved would be mass adaptation of autonomous vehicles across the board. I sure as hell will not be giving up my driving privileges any time soon.
If you can’t tell, as a petrol head I am vehemently against autonomous cars. I will fight for my driving privileges like Billy Bob from the Bayou will fight for his second amendment rights: aggressively and loudly, but without all that horrible garble Cajuns call English. Uber totally jumped the gun on this investment, but it will be interesting to see where this partnership will lead. Autonomous vehicles have a long way to go and I don’t think an already- horribly-run ridesharing tech company is the right entity to spearhead the movement. Google on the other hand might be able to take a crack at the market in the near future simply because they have what I like to call “F*ck you money,”which is essentially being able to throw cash at something until it works. In the coming months it will be interesting to see the developments in these programs, but in the meantime I will be preparing for the autopocolypse.