Uber’s self-driving cars leave drivers behind


Terry Tan / Senior Staff Ilustrator.

By Kirsten Wong / Opinions Editor

Uber is about to become Pittsburgh’s next success story, but the drivers who made that success possible likely won’t be along for the ride.

Uber’s first foray into Pittsburgh was in 2014 when it opened the first Uber Advanced Technologies Center. The company has rolled out a number of initiatives since: on Aug. 18, Uber announced that it would be testing self-driving cars in downtown Pittsburgh for public use and recently, the company announced its goal to have at least 100 self-driving Volvos on the streets by 2017. The news has conjured a vision of a bright future where car accidents, drunk driving and speeding tickets are a thing of the past, and our burgeoning tech city has celebrated the announcement as an achievement. But we might be cheering blindly.

As hopeful and exciting as this may be for Pittsburgh, there is a significant piece of information missing from the story — what will happen to the drivers whose jobs these cars take?

Before Uber moves ahead with the transition to driverless cars, which will likely take years to implement company-wide, it must consider the treatment of its employees and how these changes will affect their futures.

Uber has 1.5 million drivers globally and 600,000 drivers in the United States alone. Though many Uber drivers pick up the gig has a part time job, they will lose a significant source of income once they’re replaced. According to Uber officials, most Uber drivers spend an average of 30 hours a week on the road. As Uber rushes to get its self-driving cars out on the streets, it has failed to fully acknowledge the impact it will have on its drivers.

CEO Travis Kalanick claimed the company will still need to employ human drivers for roads that autonomous cars can’t navigate. That means humans will only be necessary in specific conditions, which will surely increase competition among drivers in certain areas or on certain days — not exactly the shining future Kalanick proposes.

Before companies like Uber strive to implement this new technology, they must create a resolution that will support drivers — the foundation of their company — going forward. Uber should re-evaluate the practices that do not give workers a voice or stability. It should understand the effects its actions will have not only on drivers, but the whole economy. Strategies like Uber’s are slowly changing long term career stability into a series of gigs that primarily serve as hollow paychecks.

Because its employees are independent contractors, Uber isn’t obligated to offer job placement or a severance package to workers it replaces with robots. Still, its financial resources are clearly targeted at growth instead of necessary self-improvement.

Uber has spent millions on expensive investments like the self-driving cars and on expanding its market. We may eventually hear about the wild successes of the self-driving project in Pittsburgh, but last week Uber’s second quarter result showed over $1.27 billion in losses in the first half of 2016.

According to Uber’s head of finance, Gautam Gupta, the majority of the company’s losses were due to subsidies for the drivers. That means Uber has an incentive to get drivers out of the equation so it doesn’t lose profits.

It is easy to shrug our shoulders and say this replacement scheme was inevitable, but the trend of automation and disregard for workers’ protection is not sustainable.

Companies like Uber and Airbnb, which rely on part-time, temporary and contract workers to carry out their services, have catapulted the growth of a gig economy — a demand-based system that depends on contingent employment with few regulations.

In 2006, contingent and independent workers made up 30 percent of the U.S. workforce, a number projected to increase to 40 percent by 2020. This business model is intended to keep costs down and provide flexibility for workers, but independent contractors do not have nearly as many legal protections as long-term employees do — their sacrifices include overtime pay, minimum wage guarantees and benefits.

While some have embraced a sharing economy that allows workers to choose when and where they work at any given moment, a large portion of our workforce is suffering from a lack of security and benefits that a full-time job provides.

We must find a solution to address the changing landscape of labor and this ever-increasing gig economy. Innovation and technology can do great things for our society, but we need to have a plan. Much like the coal and steel industry, we cannot move forward without helping those who are left behind. Uber has carelessly treated its workers like commodities for long enough.

The freelance mentality allows companies to look at their workers as disposable labor and exempts them from any accountability when it comes to worker’s rights. By devaluing their work, we are devaluing their quality of life.

Uber should provide job-training resources for its workers who do not have other forms of employment, ensuring that they will find work elsewhere once the self-driving cars hit the roads.

Additionally, Uber should provide income insurance and portable benefits that would allow workers to have a stable income and benefits regardless of the demand that usually determines their varying wage.

It might take years before self-driving cars actually hit the market, so the rideshare company has plenty of time to come up with solutions.

In the meantime, we should not be too quick to celebrate technological advances while ignoring those who are hurt by them.

Kirsten Wong is the Opinions Editor for The Pitt News. She primarily writes about social justice issues and education for The Pitt News.

Write to her at [email protected]

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