This is a weekly column that offers news, insights, analysis, and user tips for rideshare platforms like Uber and Lyft. Look for it every Monday after the live show, right here on dailytechnewsshow.com.
Uber’s been in the news a lot this past week, and as a driver who will likely be affected in the future by a lot of it, I naturally have some opinions on these things.
California drivers are overall pleased with Judge Chen’s decision to throw out the $100-million class-action settlement in a lawsuit challenging the independent contractor status of Uber drivers. None of us are legal experts, however we saw the settlement terms as an easy way for plaintiff attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan to get a nice payday for herself while basically ignoring most of the complaints, financial and otherwise, of drivers.
Drivers did get a couple of small wins from the existing settlement, those being a clearer process into why a driver would be deactivated, and the ability to not be deactivated for not accepting every trip request (though you can be placed in a “time out” for ignoring requests). There is still no in-app tipping, and Uber still actively discourages tips for some reason. Drivers also do not have the tools they desire to screen out potentially unprofitable fares (like UberPool) nor any level of insurance against further cuts to per-mile rates, which have dropped as much as 42% in some markets over just the last year.
And of course, the question of whether or not drivers are employees or independent contractors has still not been answered. With the rejection of this settlement, that question may once again make it to the forefront of this discussion.
Uber’s self-driving cars are now going to be hauling around people in Pittsburgh, with the goal to possibly have fully-autonomous, Johnny-Cab style vehicles available in as little as five years. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has spoken openly about how the company’s future is in getting rid of us expensive drivers, so the move isn’t much of a surprise. Still, drivers aren’t ready to run screaming to our robot overlords just yet.
Although self-driving technology is currently good enough to take over during a long road trip or during the freeway portion of a rush-hour commute, it would take an impressive AI leap in order to become even reasonably functional in a dense and chaotic city environment, not to mention adverse weather conditions. Not to say that it can’t be done in five years, but I’m not bullish on the prospects at the moment. On top of that, it’s difficult enough most of the time for human drivers to find the passengers that need to be picked up. I can’t imagine that a computer will have better luck at this.
As for the money issue, Uber will end up saving money with self-driving cars, but it won’t be an immediate process. The need to purchase and maintain expensive vehicles and to employ the technicians to update and “fix” them will cut into Uber’s profit margins far more than just counting on regular drivers to take care of all that car stuff themselves, at least for the first few years. The technology will have to mature significantly before Uber will be seeing any cost savings. It’s a long game to be sure, but drivers will see the signs coming long before then. Right now we’re expecting to be obsolete in ten to fifteen years, more than enough time to make plans for the future. I’m making mine right now, actually, but that’s another story for another time.
Sekani Wright is an experienced Uber driver working in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. If you have any questions you would like answered for this column, you can contact him at djsekani at gmail dot com, or on twitter and reddit at the username djsekani. Have a safe trip!