Is this the way of the future, or a race to the bottom?
by Mike Beggs
The fallout from Uber’s March 16 traffic fatality in Arizona has raised some serious questions about the future of autonomous vehicle technology (and comes shortly after Uber reached a $245-million settlement of a trade secrets lawsuit filed against it by Waymo, Alphabet’s self-driving arm).
Uber had already paused its trials in Arizona, Pittsburgh, California, and Toronto in light of this tragedy, when Arizona Governor Doug Ducey barred the company from further testing in his state, pending the outcome of inquiries by national transport safety regulators.
Ducey stated that after watching footage of the accident, there had been an “unquestionable failure” to make safety the top priority in this testing.
“It shows the car’s operator (in the front passenger seat) looking down, rather than directly at the road, for about four seconds before the night-time accident,” he wrote, in a dispatch to Uber. “I found the video to be disturbing and alarming, and it raises many questions about the reliability of Uber to continue testing in Arizona.”
By contrast, in 2016 Ducey had welcomed Uber’s self-driving fleet to his state, “with open arms, and wide open roads”.
On March 29, Uber agreed on a settlement with the family of the accident victim, 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg, avoiding a potential legal battle over this, the first death caused by a self-driving vehicle.
But Business News speculates that this accident could stall the development and testing of – potentially revolutionary – autonomous vehicles, and that the Tempe death also represents an unprecedented liability challenge (because self-driving vehicles involve a complex system of hardware and software often made by outside suppliers).
This fatality was followed up by the March 25 death of the driver of a Tesla SUV in autopilot, after it slammed into a roadside barrier and caught fire on a highway in Mountainview, California.
Toyota and the chipmaker Nvidia have also paused their self-driving car testing on public roads, in light of these incidents.
However in March, Waymo announced a new partnership with BMW Jaguar Land Rover to produce a fleet of up to 20,000 self-driving cars.
Ontario’s ongoing 10-year pilot project for autonomous vehicles requires that a human being always be on board and ready to take over the wheel.
While many experts have argued that autonomous vehicles will far outperform human drivers, and markedly reduce the number of motor vehicle deaths, many are now calling for heightened caution and due diligence in their testing and development. And indeed some are now expressing doubts about the supposed infallibility of these robot-driven vehicles.
Mississauga plate-holder Peter Pellier suggests there will be inevitable incidents of this nature as such testing continues, and that, “It really does cry out for much closer government regulation.”
But he predicts that, in time, autonomous technology will find its way into the buses, streetcars, subways, and trains that comprise transit across the GTHA.
“The Uber versus Taxi argument soon will go the way of the Dodo, in the face of self-driving vehicles,” he offers.
On the other hand, Independent Toronto Taxi Inc. president Mike Tranquada considers the driverless cars model, “a total pipe dream”.
“The normal cars we have on the road have 10 or 20 sensors, and some of these sensors are super expensive,” he relates. “An autonomous car has 400 sensors. You’re not going to be able to operate a car with 400 sensors (at an affordable rate).”
“And with the current cars, there are all kinds of garages to fix them. Who’s going to fix these autonomous cars? Tesla is starting to teach people to fix them, but their cars are expensive.”
Oakville owner/operator Al Prior agrees.
“There’s no way you can have a fully autonomous car. There has always got to be somebody who is in charge,” he says.
He alleges, “What Uber has been doing is tapping our public money to fund these projects. We’re talking billions of dollars. I think the politicians have been handing over money left, right and centre, and they’re willing to screw up an entire industry to get votes.”
Concerns over the standards of Uber X drivers were heightened on March 25, with news of a two-vehicle collision killing a man on the westbound Gardiner, east of Royal York Road. A 23-year-old Uber driver faces four charges including Dangerous Driving Causing Death, and Criminal Negligence Causing Death.
Police say the crash occurred when a car on the shoulder collided with another vehicle, while trying to merge on to the highway. Nicholas Cameron was killed in the crash, while taking an Uber to the airport.
While acknowledging this could have been done by any driver not paying proper attention, veteran owner/operator Gerry Manley believes, “There will be many more incidents such as this coming from the PTC drivers who are not trained professional drivers, nor do they have the experience or competency to drive for hire.”
“This does (suggest) that, by allowing an additional and unwarranted 50,000-plus cars on the streets of Toronto, we will end up having many more of these types of accident occurring in our industry,” he added.
Of how standards have been allowed to slide, City Taxi assistant general manager Neil Shorey alleges, “It’s a good thing we don’t rely on the technology companies for carrying people’s children home from school.”
Prior suggests it’s a sign, “of the government ignoring an ever-escalating problem.”
“Definitely, I think the driving has gone downhill, even for professional cab drivers, because they’re not working as much. I used to be on the road 14 hours a day. You’ve got to be in the saddle all the time to be a really good driver.
“Driving isn’t easy, like everybody wants you to believe. Just to be able to talk to a customer when you’re driving, and understand where you’re going (takes some ability and experience). …It’s not just driving a car.”
Meanwhile in London, England, The New Statesman columnist Amelia Tait wonders, “With one attack a week in London, is using Uber safe for women?”
“Uber entrusts untrained strangers to drive us around, simply because they operate via a sleek, shiny app,” she wrote.
According to Tait, at 2:50 a.m. on a February morning, her estimated half-hour Uber ride home turned into a 1-hour nightmare.
“When I finally opened the door to my flat, I burst into tears,” she wrote, of the incident.
She notes that over the past year, there were 48 alleged sex attacks by Uber drivers reported to London police.
In her column, another 22-year-old woman said, “I’ve never had conversations with people where it immediately became so sexual.”
Such safety concerns were underscored again in the mid-April ride from hell experienced by Denver law professor Nancy Leong, after she summoned an Uber to Denver International Airport.
Leong alleges her driver pulled off the highway en route, and announced he was taking her to a hotel instead. She demanded to be let out at a stoplight, but the driver refused and had locked all of the doors. It was only when she screamed and pounded on the windows to alert nearby construction workers, that the driver let her out.
In a tweet to Uber, Leong stated, “I think it probably goes without saying that I am uncomfortable with this person having my home address, which is where he picked me up. I’d like to know what you’re going to do about this.”
On April 16, NBC’s Today show presented a report entitled, “Fake Uber Drivers Are Out There”, and offered advice on how to avoid becoming their victim. Tip 1 was to make sure the license plate showing on your app matches that of the vehicle, before climbing in.
This came just four days after Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi announced several new safety measures, designed to, “to double down on safety in our app”. That includes a panic button in the app, an option to share trip details with “Trusted Contacts”, strengthening its driver screening process, and bringing a respected advisor on board to help shape Uber’s next way forward.
“Every day, our technology puts millions of people together in cars in cities around the world. Helping keep people safe is a huge responsibility, and one we do not take lightly,” he stated in an online posting.
Meanwhile, Fortune suggests Uber risks distraction with its recent purchase of a provider of dockless electric bikes (called Jump), and the launching of a rental car service inside its app (in partnership with the San Francisco-based company Getaround, which has been operative since 1988 and enables users to find and instantly book vehicles from private car owners through its app in 10 major American cities). It has also launched a partnership with the London-based Masabi, which will help customers book and use public transit within the Uber app.
These moves are all part of Uber expanding beyond its on-demand service and into other modes of transportation – which more than one observer has suggested has, at least partially, been driven by the need to compensate for losses in its core business, and seeing its image sullied in a scandal-ridden 2017.
“As we think about where we want our cities to be in the future, we think we can do more. And we will,” Khosrowshahi wrote in an April 11 blog posting.
For its part, Lyft has just launched a “subscription” trial project around the U.S., with the knowledge that between them, Lyft and Uber handle just 0.5 percent of the total miles traveled in one year in the States. Lyft CEO Logan Green said the company, “is always testing new ways to provide passengers the most affordable and flexible transportation options.”
“I believe that 0.5 per cent will increase to the point a majority of the miles traveled in the U.S. will be on a service like Lyft,” president John Zimmer added, “and you will be subscribing to a Lyft transportation plan similar to a music program like Spotify, or a minutes plan like with AT&T, or Verizon.”
Meanwhile, the class action suit filed by Lyft drivers against Uber over its “Hell” program continues in a California court, but with a narrower scope. While Judge Jacqueline Scott Corley dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims alleging that Uber wrongfully intercepted the communications and whereabouts of Lyft drivers resulting in their loss of revenue, they will be allowed to file a complaint concerning “unfair competition”.
Also, in late March, Uber agreed to pay a $10 million settlement in a gender and race discrimination law suit, compensating 285 women and 335 men of colour for financial and emotional harm. The class action suit was brought by two female engineers, who alleged the company discriminated on the basis of race and gender.