Uber drivers and cabbies are both set for the scrapheap

One day the fierce rivalry on London's roads will be consigned to history by self-driving cabs.

by Jack Torrance
Last Updated: 25 Aug 2016

Black cab drivers aren’t big fans of their (mostly) Toyota Prius driving counterparts that ply their trade for Uber. Social media is packed with spittle-flecked vitriol about Uber drivers not being able work their satnav properly, going the wrong way down one way roads and failing to indicate. Darker, anti-immigration tinged criticisms, implying many of them are criminals are not uncommon.

That antipathy partly stems from a feeling of unfair competition. Cabbies have found their livelihoods under threat thanks to their new low-cost, super convenient competitor, victims of disruption in the same mould as gaslamp lighters, fabric weavers and more recently checkout operators. It’s understandable if unpalatable that this fear should manifest itself as resentment.

The reality is that both types of driver will soon find themselves in much the same boat. Black cabs might survive the challenge of Uber by virtue of their well-heeled, older customer base. But it’s hard to see they will last long in the age of the self-driving car and the same is true of Uber’s drivers.

It’s hard to put a date on when such vehicles will be a common sight on our roads. Two or three years ago it seemed like an amusing pipe dream. Something that existed mainly in the minds of a certain kind of technology worshipping Silicon Valley zealot, but that would be delayed for decades by technological challenges, high costs and political disinterest.

Yet now the consensus is that they are not so far away. Governments have got out of the way, giving the likes of Google permission to test on public roads and even splashing the cash on autonomous vehicle projects (in February HMG gave £20m to eight such schemes – peanuts compared to Google’s coffers but a strong statement of intent). And the giant industry incumbents are all getting in on the action too. Just last week Ford said it plans to start selling some autonomous cars by 2021. Volkswagen’s ‘head of digitisation’ has said he expects the first models to come to market by 2019.

Uber plans to test its own fleet of self-driving taxis (modified Volvos) in Pennsyvlania from the end of this month. But even the King of Disrupters was beaten to it by little-known American start-up Nutonomy, which began its own trial of autonomous cabs in a small area in Singapore today (a reminder that all innovative upstarts should always be glancing over their shoulder.)

As with Uber, passengers will be able to hail a taxi with a smartphone app, and a driver will remain behind the wheel for safety reasons. But the cars will drive themselves – a world first (check out the cheesy promo video below) ‘The trial represents an extraordinary opportunity to collect feedback from riders in a real-world setting, and this feedback will give nuTonomy a unique advantage as we work toward deployment of a self-driving vehicle fleet in 2018,’ said CEO and co-founder Karl Iagnemma.

This technology can improve the world but it also threatens the jobs of many – not just Uber and taxi drivers but hauliers, couriers, merchant sailors, train drivers and perhaps even airline pilots, most of whose tasks have already been replaced by autopilot.

Dealing with this big tranche of newly unemployed workers will be a big task. Many will have to retrain and find other jobs, but that’s not a speedy process. More dramatic political interventions might be on the cards. MT recently had a boozy (me not him) and intense conversation with an Uber driver about the merits (or not) of a universal basic income – a proposal that every citizen should receive a salary from the state.

It’s another theory that seemed pie in the sky a few years ago but has since gained a number of respected proponents, including world wide web inventor Tim Berners Lee, Nobel Prize winning economist Angus Deaton and even the CEO of Deutsch Telekom. And said Uber driver, who suggested such a scheme was ‘inevitable’. A referendum on the matter in plebiscite-loving Switzerland was roundly defeated with fewer than one in four votes back in June. But as more people begin to be replaced by robots, don’t be surprised to see public support surge.

Some professional drivers won't be affected by this new tech. Autonomous cars might make it to the market in 2019 but they're unlikely to wipe out human-controlled ones for a while after that and some ageing drivers will be able to hang on until retirement. But it's hard to imagine a twenty-something taxi driver setting out today will find himself doing the same job by the time they are 40, even if they want to. Both Uber drivers and cabbies will soon be surplus to requirements - they have that much in common, at least.


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