A few years ago, I drove for Uber and Lyft in the Phoenix metro. People at the airport parking lots and Uber driver Facebook groups kept saying that robotaxis weren’t coming for our jobs, but I figured differently. We were already sharing the road with test vehicles not only from Waymo, but also Uber’s modified Volvos. As we all know, time is money, and I figured we didn’t have much time before those Volvos took our jobs, assuming Tesla didn’t take everyone’s jobs faster.
“Maybe five years, max,” I’d say (in 2018).
Here we are five years later, and things haven’t gone quite as expected. Despite all the hype, Tesla’s efforts haven’t reached the point where Tesla is comfortable taking on all that liability and sending them out without human supervision. Uber didn’t last a year, with efforts effectively killed when one of the vehicles struck a wayward pedestrian. Uber did manage to shift the blame for the accident onto the poorly-trained test driver, though. Other companies like GM’s Cruise and Alphabet’s Waymo continued, with Cruise only recently running into trouble in California.
Now, Uber and Waymo are announcing a partnership in the Phoenix metro area. A few days ago, Uber customers were able to get matched with a fully autonomous, all-electric Waymo ride for the first time — with no human driver behind the wheel — in the 225+ square miles of Metro Phoenix where Waymo operates.
When an Uber customer requests an UberX, Uber Green, Uber Comfort, or Uber Comfort Electric ride through the Uber app, they will have the option to choose a ride in a Waymo vehicle (if matched to one nearby, of course). This marks the first launch of the strategic partnership between Uber and Waymo, which was announced earlier this year (and CleanTechnica‘s Zach Shahan did a great analysis of).
“Our partnership with Uber gives their riders the chance to experience the Waymo Driver,” said Tekedra Mawakana, co-CEO of Waymo. “As we continue to scale, we want as many people as possible to experience the safety, consistency and delight of riding with the Waymo Driver.”
For people already using Waymo, things won’t change. They’ll still be able to hail a robotaxi via the company’s app just like they already were doing, so there’s no need to switch to the Uber app. And, there are already tens of thousands of people doing just that in the Phoenix metro area, with around ten percent of the rides being to and from Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport.
Waymo says the company is proud of the rider community the company has been building in Metro Phoenix—the result of years spent developing a genuinely useful service in the market. This month marks five years since the company first launched Waymo One in Chandler, Arizona, and three years of offering a fully autonomous service to the public. In that time, company reps said they’ve quintupled the size of the service area in Phoenix, making it the largest AV ride-hailing territory in the world as of this writing!
But, don’t expect it to completely kill off human-driven Uber and Lyft rideshare cars very fast. The service area is hundreds of square miles, but the overall metro area is much bigger. This means that even trips from the airport are going to require a human driver in many cases. Plus, there will continue to be many riders who simply aren’t comfortable with a Robotaxi, or want help with things like loading and unloading luggage (robotaxis don’t do that yet).
But, this is still a big step for both companies.
Uber’s getting past old failures (even if the company managed to blame someone else for it in court), and autonomous services are available via the app now. The driver is the most expensive cost the company has to pay to provide rides, and even then drivers aren’t doing too hot financially in the Phoenix metro (like most areas). People who love driving for the company will end up missing out on some rides, but the company may have a good path to real profitability without as many human costs now.
Waymo may be the even bigger winner here, though. While Uber would likely be able to pay Waymo less than the company pays human drivers, Waymo is still taking most of the Robotaxi money and remains in control of the whole deal. If the arrangement falls apart, Waymo can work with other rideshare services or just work directly with riders, while Uber would be left without autonomy available to them in the market.
That all having been said, the companies still have a long road ahead of them. Waymo needs to grow to include the whole Phoenix metro area, and the company needs to expand into many more metro areas than the handful Waymo operates in now. While it seems technically possible, Waymo still hasn’t expanded to the whole Phoenix area. A whole new city would require new high-definition maps and every other effort the company has put in at the current sites Waymo operates in. So, it’s going to take not only technologically figuring out how to conquer the whole Phoenix area, but having the money to do it again and again faster and faster.
Let’s Not Forget The Drivers
Having driven for Uber in that market myself, I don’t want to handwave the problem of drivers away. In the long run, it’s just not possible to pay a decent amount for their time and vehicle maintenance while still turning a profit from what people are willing to pay for a ride. So, there’s really no good end to this for drivers, even if we banned autonomous vehicles to save them.
But, the old “you’ll find a better job than the one you lost” might not hold true this time. Automation is ravaging not just one industry this time, but many others. AI writing tools still sound awkward and make rookie mistakes, but that’s not going to be the case forever. Image generators used to make weird hands, but that’s also improving. Many other fields are seeing the jobs slowly trickle away, and it’s hard to not hear the waterfall in the distance.
So, we’ve got to think about how to deal with this issue now instead of when it has resulted in mass unemployment and social unrest.
Featured image provided by Uber.
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