In this week’s roundup, senior RSG contributor John Ince covers the potential (but expensive) rise of autonomous vehicles, plus how driving for Uber and Lyft continue to become less profitable for drivers. Let us know what you think of this week’s round up in the comments below!
Uber and the Ongoing Erasure of Public Life [The New Yorker]
Sum and Substance: Uber has become a subsidized alternative to the public-transportation systems that it claims to support. Last September, Uber rolled out a rebranding campaign. A new television commercial showed car doors being flung open and the young and the old crowding in, flying out, and ending up in a small open-air mercado or at a lake. Though there were a few drivers, the image presented was of ceaseless, liberating mobility for passengers, anywhere in the world.
Uber changed its logo, too, to a demure sans-serif display—white against a black background, its only flourish a modest pair of mirrored stems attached to the “U” and the “b.” This was a significant change. Since 2016, the phone app and the stickers that identified Uber-enabled cars had enjoyed an image designed partly by the co-founder and then-C.E.O. Travis Kalanick: a circle bisected with a cord, placed against the background of a colorful tile. When tilted ninety degrees counterclockwise, some design and technology journalists noted, it looked unmistakably like a human bent over and seen from behind.
… In short, Uber’s ambitions have grown. What has not changed is the company’s basic goal, which is perfecting the consumer experience. At the heart of Uber’s appeal is the feeling of ordering a car: that liquid transition from pressing a button to arriving at a destination. It’s a fantasy of convenience, though one that comes largely at the expense of drivers—and even, it turns out, of other consumers. In her recent book, “Uberland: How Algorithms are Rewriting the Rules of Work,” the technology ethnographer Alex Rosenblat studies the company’s “algorithmic management,” which forces drivers “to accept the odds that Uber has designed in its favor.” Drivers have no control over pricing, which spikes and dives according to demand. Uber’s system often sends them wheedling or boisterous messages (“Don’t stop now!” “Your next rider is going to be awesome!”), and it encourages them to hunt surge pricing or to flock to arenas at the end of sports games. Not all of this works out for the drivers, but it keeps them on the road.
What is surprising is that Uber’s user experience affects not only drivers but also the design of cities, as well as the lives of those residing in them. Jarrett Walker, a public-transit consultant, has noted that ride-sharing apps have “transformed customer experience—by taking the friction out of the hailing, routing, and paying.” But those apps don’t “seem to be transforming the fundamental nature of the task, or its potential to be profitable.” This is because, very simply, “transportation happens in physical space. The dominant element of cost is the time it takes to drive someone to their destination, and to travel empty between jobs. The app does nothing to change this.”…
In other words, Uber’s most significant contribution to mobility in cities may be our increasing lack of it. A growing chorus of engineers and traffic consultants have demonstrated that Uber, along with its smaller rival Lyft and other transportation network companies (T.N.C.s)—more commonly known as ride-sharing services (a euphemism, since most rides are not shared)—are sapping transit ridership and clogging streets. …
My Take: This is a well written and thoroughly researched article that puts forth what has become an increasingly accepted thesis – that Uber is undermining public transit with their investor subsidized, aggressively growing business model.
New York City has become ground zero of a growing anti-Uber backlash – with the City Council, the media and the taxi-unions all piling on against Uber/Lyft. It’s put the new kindler, gentler Uber PR image under the microscope and forced Uber to step outside itself to defend its core business in its most important market.
This next article goes into greater detail about the stakes of this war. Indeed, we’re very possibly talking about an existential threat to Uber/Lyft. As New York goes, so goes the rest of the country.
All the Bad Things About Uber and Lyft In One Simple List [Streetsblog]
Sum and Substance: Here’s the latest evidence that Uber and Lyft are destroying our world: Students at the University of California Los Angeles are taking an astonishing 11,000 app-based taxi trips every week that begin and end within the boundaries of the campus. The report in the Daily Bruin revealed anew that Uber, Lyft, Via and the like are massively increasing car trips in many of the most walkable and transit friendly places in U.S.
It comes after a raft of recent studies have found negative effects from Uber and Lyft, such as increased congestion, higher traffic fatalities, huge declines in transit ridership and other negative impacts. It’s becoming more and more clear that Uber and Lyft having some pretty pernicious effects on public health and the environment, especially in some of the country’s largest cities.
We decided to compile it all into a comprehensive list, and well, you judge for yourself.
My Take: Angie Schmitt has long been an insightful blogger covering ridesharing, and in this article she pulls everything together in one neat list.
To be fair, someone else could write another list of all the good things about these companies: convenience, cheap fares, super friendly drivers, etc. Come to think of it, that list has already been compiled and it’s being incorporated into these companies increasingly aggressive advertising campaigns. The net is that, by using investor capital, Uber and Lyft have made getting from Point A to Point B cheaper and simpler than the alternatives.
What Angie points out are the social costs – especially in spots like the UCLA campus where taking an Uber has become the preferred alternative to walking, or biking. Is this progress? I doubt it. But who am I to stand in the path of the onrushing capitalism?
After New York City’s War With Amazon, Uber Could Be Next [New York Times]
Sum and Substance: Uber has filed a federal lawsuit challenging New York City’s cap on vehicles driving for Uber and other ride-hailing apps. CreditDave Sanders for The New York Times
After New York City and Amazon went to war over a new campus in Queens, the city is heading into battle with another tech giant: Uber. Mayor Bill de Blasio approved a yearlong cap on Uber vehicles last summer, making New York the first major American city to rein in the booming ride-hail company. Now Mr. de Blasio wants to extend the cap, prompting Uber to sue the city last week to overturn the law.
Uber has fiercely opposed the cap, arguing that it hurts New Yorkers who rely on the app, especially outside Manhattan where there are fewer transit options. The lawsuit called the city’s regulatory approach “unfortunate, irresponsible and irrational.”
Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat with presidential ambitions, responded by saying the city’s new rules — both the cap and a measure to raise wages for drivers — were needed.
My Take: When the New York Times comes to an issue as thoroughly as they did on this piece, you know the issue is legit. And the issue here is that NYC regulators and elected officials have taken the side of drivers and the public. Neither Uber nor Lyft likes that, so they’re fighting the power structures in court. What else is new? Hey, it’s a business.
Google’s Waymo risks repeating Silicon Valley’s most famous blunder [Ars Technica]
Sum and Substance: Xerox launched its Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in 1970. By 1975, its researchers had invented a personal computer with a graphical user interface that was almost a decade ahead of its time. Unfortunately, the commercial version of this technology wasn’t released until 1981 and proved to be an expensive flop. Two much younger companies—Apple and Microsoft—co-opted many of Xerox’s ideas and wound up dominating the industry.
Google’s self-driving car program, created in 2009, appears to be on a similar trajectory. By October 2015, Google was confident enough in its technology to put a blind man into one of its cars for a solo ride in Austin, Texas.
But much like Xerox 40 years earlier, Google has struggled to bring its technology to market. The project was rechristened Waymo in 2016, and Waymo was supposed to launch a commercial driverless service by the end of 2018. But the service Waymo launched in December was not driverless and barely commercial. It had a safety driver in every vehicle, and it has only been made available to a few hundred customers.
Today, a number of self-driving startups are aiming to do to Waymo what Apple did to Xerox years ago. Nuro is a driverless delivery startup that announced Monday that it raised $940 million in venture capital. Another, called Voyage, is testing a self-driving taxi service in one of the nation’s largest retirement communities.
Right now, these companies’ self-driving services aren’t as sophisticated as Waymo’s. Their vehicles have top speeds of 25 miles per hour. But Apple started out making under-powered products, too, then it gradually worked its way up-market, ultimately eclipsing Xerox. If Waymo isn’t strategic, companies like Nuro and Voyage could do the same thing to the pioneering self-driving company.
Editor’s Note: This is a great piece on the race to a commercial fleet of self driving cars. Tim is one of the best covering this beat right now. In our view, we’re not sure if Waymo’s approach is wrong or merely different. Waymo clearly has a lot of smart people, money and resources, but building a commercially autonomous rideshare service is turning out to be very hard. Read more and share your thoughts with us over on Twitter here.
Driver Shares Discoveries From Uber vs. Taxi Experiment [KCBS Radio]
Sum and Substance: A driver who’s ferried passengers throughout the Bay Area as an Uber, Lyft and taxi cab driver feels that his chance of making a decent living is drying up no matter which service he offers.
“There’s no future in this work,” said Jay Cradeur, who’s logged 23,000 trips for the ride-hailing companies. He recently experimented with getting behind the wheel of a traditional taxi and described his experience on “The Rideshare Guy” blog.
Although he made some surprising discoveries about the differences of passenger behavior in cabs compared to those who get picked up with an app, he’s going to stick with Uber and Lyft for now. The math just makes sense…
However, if and when Uber and Lyft become publicly traded companies, he thinks many of the financial incentives will vanish…
Editor’s Note: Remember Jay’s foray into taxi driving? It was picked up by KCBS and summarizes Jay’s experience driving a taxi (lucrative, especially with tips) while also covering how driving is increasingly becoming less profitable for drivers overall.
Readers, what do you think of this week’s round up?
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-John @ RSG
Latest posts by John Ince (see all)
- What Lyft’s IPO is Telling Us About Rideshare - March 23, 2019
- Uber’s Ambitious and Expensive Plan to Get Self-Driving Technology - March 16, 2019
- Does Uber and Lyft Value New or Experienced Drivers More? - March 13, 2019