The Battle of Uber is raging from Spain to Saskatoon. It's an ugly fight with taxi companies and municipal politicians pitted against the high-tech leviathan.
To some, taxi companies are cartels rigging the market and offering poor service. To some, Uber is a morally suspect greed machine exploiting workers and flouting the law.
But it's just a skirmish.
While the battle is being fought to determine how human drivers are controlled and dispatched, the war is being waged to determine which entity will ultimately control the driverless cabs of the future. If the experts are right, in a couple of decades there won't be much need for human drivers. They'll be found at the wax museum with the lamplighters and the ice cutters. Today's Uber fight may as well be an argument over the production of buggy whips.
We won't have to wait long to see who wins. Goldman Sacks predicts 2017 will be a "watershed year" for autonomous cars. Ford chief executive Mark Fields says autonomous vehicles will be available on the market within five years.
Driverless trucks will soon be introduced. The Calgary Herald reported that Canada's largest oil company, Suncor Energy, "has entered into a five-year agreement with Komatsu Ltd., the Japanese manufacturer of earth-moving and construction machines, to purchase heavy haulers for its mining operations north of Fort McMurray, Alta. All the new trucks will be 'autonomous-ready.'"
"That means they are capable of operating without a driver," says Sneh Seetal, Suncor spokesman.
Suncor's 1,000 human truck drivers are nervous. Their trepidation is understandable. The Herald reported that, in June, Suncor's chief financial officer Alister Cowan told an RBC Capital Markets conference in New York the company wants to replace drivers "by the end of the decade … That will take 800 people off our site at an average [salary] of $200,000 per person, you can see the savings we're going to get from an operations perspective."
It's hard to say just how "driverless" taxis and trucks will be. If they do still have drivers, the humans' role would be greatly reduced. Driverless cars are likely to be safer and better for the environment, but they will also wreak havoc on traditional transport. Some see an economic car-megeddon. Technology blogger Scott Santens predicts devastation. On the website Medium, he reported that in the United States there are 3.5 million truckers and 5.2 million more employed within the industry. Once driverless trucks are implemented, that means 8.2 million jobs lost. If the taxi industry is also hit, the ramifications would be stunning.
Where does Uber stand? Santens notes that in 2014, Travis Kalanick, the CEO and founder of Uber, told a business conference he'd happily replace human Uber drivers with a fleet of self-driving cars. Once you get rid of the driver, "the cost of taking an Uber anywhere becomes cheaper than owning a vehicle," he said, and that "will bring the cost below the cost of ownership for everybody, and then car ownership goes away."
Today it's about human drivers, but that will pass. They'll all lose their jobs and no one will care – does anyone miss the elevator operator, the bowling alley pinsetter or the milkman? One of humanity's defining traits is its ability to disregard the suffering of others.
The fight's really about who will run the future fleets of driverless cars; about whether ride sharing can be so cheap that car ownership becomes obsolete; about who will flood driverless vehicles with "content."
Enjoy the hurly burly. But don't be surprised if, in a few decades when the cabbies, and truckers and drivers are gone and the economic devastation hits, you lose your livelihood because the sector you work in relied on those automotive-sector jobs existing. Technology's great until it lands you in the breadline.
Send not for whom the app tolls. It tolls for thee.
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