Automotive industry news is a buzz over the fact that Uber now has a fleet of autonomous, self-driving vehicles in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. When a customer gets in, they see an iPad mounted between the front seats that first welcomes them, shows the route the vehicle plans to take to get them to their destination, and also the progress along the route with the vehicle’s speed.
For now, there is an engineer in the front, co-passenger seat to take over if any problems arise, and driverless vehicles are available in only a 31-square-kilmetres area in the Steel City, but this could be a sign of things to come, if Uber has its way. Currently, every autonomous car is connected to a control centre (in this case the Advanced Technologies Centre), which monitors its movement. Eventually, there will be local control centres for each city they operate in, keeping tabs on all their driverless vehicles.
What It Means for the ANZ & Asia-Pacific
Could Uber replicate this in Australia and New Zealand? Probably yes. What about other countries in the Asia-Pacific region? It might be able to do so in countries like Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Brunei, Hong Kong and Macau where the technology and infrastructure is available.
In many other Asian countries, it is already a pain to drive. Because of scant enforcement of even basic road laws, and a population that is too large to be controlled by a small force of traffic policemen, road rules are observed more in the breach. So it is not uncommon to see drivers changing lanes without signalling or pedestrians crossing the road wherever they feel like. These conditions require quick reaction times and so a fundamental questions remains, can a computer respond in time to a life-threatening situation. The chances are slim that any time soon, Uber would have driverless cars in developing countries located in the Asia-Pacific region.
Overcoming the opposition
Uber has seen protests everywhere it operates, even with a driver at the wheel. Local cab operators say Uber is cutting them short and undermining their livelihoods with its low fares. The company therefore is in an uphill battle due to laws and the fact that Uber has already been banned in some countries and in some cases faces tough, established competition. Didi in China, for example, completely squashed Uber’s business. In the end, Uber agreed to take a billion dollar incentive and small ownership stake and exited the country leaving Didi as the top ride-share app.
Yet with driverless technology, the threat of it replacing humans is real. Thus Uber can expect to see more opposition from taxi driver trade unions. The Australian Taxi Drivers Association has already taken Uber to court. The New Zealand Taxi Federation is not against Uber, but wants a level playing field in the interests of safety. As of now, taxis have a separate registration process and are subject to a set of safety regulations that Uber isn’t – its fleet has private car/own driver registration.
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick likens the scenario to the introduction of ATMs several years ago. The fear was that it would replace bank workers. But banks made so much profit that they could open may additional branches, employing more people in the process. A self-driving Uber would be operational 24 hours a day, and would therefore require more maintenance than any other car. This would lead to the creation of more jobs, says Kalanick.
No industry is immune to digital disruption. Perhaps those at the greatest risk, as has been demonstrated, are the ones that have been locked into a level of complacency for so long. Basic economics in a developed country has demonstrated over and over that as technology comes to replace old world jobs, we will inevitably see a shift in the types of jobs available. As driverless vehicles and taxis catch on, we will no doubt see a shift and where that shift will lead is anyone’s guess.