What happens to Uber’s drivers once cars drive themselves? Something other than just losing their jobs, according to a gentler approach from CEO Travis Kalanick. Uber could potentially train drivers to do other jobs in the post-driving world.
Previously Kalanick had taken a more ruthlessly efficient stance, saying at CODE Conference last year that he loves self-driving cars, and that “When there’s no other dude in the car, the cost of Uber becomes cheaper than owning a vehicle.” Asked how he would address Uber’s drivers who might worry they’ll be made obsolete, Kalanick replied “I would say to them this is the way the world is going.”
But Friday night, Kalanick offered new potential options for drivers while speaking on stage at the Summit At Sea getaway conference boat off the coast of Miami. The boat, which had little connectivity, just returned to port.
After an on stage discussion with Google/Alphabet chairman Eric Schmidt, a nervous audience member bluntly asked Kalanick about the fate of Uber’s drivers as autonomous vehicles hit the road. At first, Kalanick launched into a summary of why the act of driving is fundamentally bad. He cited that 30,000 people a year die of car accidents, billions of hours are spent “decreasing quality of life” during the stressful act of driving, and traffic hurts people’s efficiency. He sees driverless technology as a solution to many of these problems.
Kalanick went on to frame Uber’s quandary regarding drivers as “Do we want to embrace the future and embrace the technology, or resist it?” He declared Uber’s position is to be part of the future, and “optimistically lead through it”.
That’s when he hinted at what Uber might do to handle the shift from contracting human drivers to routing autonomous vehicles. Kalanick said there were several “easy ideas” in play to assist drivers with this shift, citing “vocational periods, education, and transition periods”. He insisted that “you’ll see Uber working on this way before the transition happens.”
Unpacking these statements, it seems Uber is considering offering drivers instruction in vocations other than piloting a car. Instead of standing back as autonomous vehicles compete with traditional cars, Uber could potentially prepare drivers for another career or cash-earning job. Uber could also potentially provide transition periods so drivers have some level of assurance their fares won’t disappear overnight.
The position falls more in line with the kinder attitude that late last year Kalanick said he wanted Uber to take now that it’s become so dominant. When asked for an official statement, Uber told me it had nothing to add.
Why would Uber want to step in to help drivers? One possible reason is that driverless vehicles won’t proliferate around the world instantly. Uber will likely need more human drivers in some markets for much longer than others.
Recruiting and retaining these drivers could be difficult if they see their compatriots in other locations being replaced by self-driving cars. They might feel like it’s not worth it to get a car that’s up to Uber’s standards, or decide it’d be better to pursue building another skill or employment relationship. Uber might also be hoping to improve its image in order to more successfully recruit top talent.
Uber is currently building its own driverless car technology, spearheaded by a lab in Pittsburgh staffed with engineers poached from the nearby Carnegie Mellon University. Meanwhile, Uber investor Google Ventures’ parent company is also far along with its autonomous vehicle prototypes.
Kalanick and Schmidt’s talk occurred on Summit Series’ Summit At Sea event, an invite-only destination conference and culture festival has been described as an intellectual summer camp for adults. The 3000-plus person cruise off of Miami also featured a video chat with Edward Snowden moderated by investor Chris Sacca, concerts with art rock group Hundred Waters and Bob Marley’s band The Wailers, a talk with human rights leader Harry Belafonte, and late night DJ sets.
The chat with Uber’s CEO kicked off with Schmidt asking about the craziest thing that’s ever happened in an Uber. Kalanick described a driver convincing his wife to hide in the trunk so he could take a fare. When the passenger appeared with luggage and the driver popped the trunk for them to stow it, hilarity ensued.
The two also discussed, Uber’s origin story, each Uber’s ability to replace car ownership for dozens of people, and that almost 50% of San Francisco rides are now UberPool carpools. Kalanick criticized a mayor in the Hamptons that’s banned Uber despite the local prevalence of drunk driving accidents.
As for how Uber will implement driverless cars, Kalanick said there were many options and that “it’s not clear how it’s going to work out.” However, he did mention one potential business model was for a logistics company to own and “manage a multi-thousand car fleet”.
For countless Uber partner drivers around the world, autonomous vehicles may be rightful cause for worry. But now, whether it’s for purely benevolent or efficient strategic reasons, Uber seems willing to do more than just ditch drivers on the side of the road.