Report: Uber’s focused march towards autonomy, innovation or desperation?

Published: March 22, 2018

Updated: July 24, 2018

Author: Luke Jones



Uber has been a leading light in driving innovation in autonomous vehicle technology, but the company’s push towards a driverless fleet has hit a bump. A fatality in Phoenix, Arizona potentially caused by Uber’s driverless technology has raised questions. Once again the viability of the technology is under scrutiny.

However, more than that, is it worth questioning Uber’s aggressive path towards autonomy and whether it was born from the thirst for innovation, or from greed? I’ll give you the answer now, it is all about the money.

Thousands of people drive for Uber all around the world, yet the market-leading ride-sharing company has an uneasy relationship with these operatives. This stems from the business model that states none of these drivers are Uber employees, they are instead freelance contractors.

There is a give-give relationship to this model. Uber supplies the technology platform and reach, while the driver takes the fare and gives a cut to the company… win-win. However, drivers have increasingly started to ask for more, specifically be to given more benefits.

In other words, drivers want to be treated more like employees. This does not suit Uber for myriad reasons. Until now, it has been relatively easy for the company to wash its hands of drivers. If operatives take fares in a location where Uber is not legal, it’s not the company’s fault. At least that’s the argument Uber presented throughout Canada as it operated rouge for over a year.

If these rouge drivers had been under Uber’s employ, the company would have been on the hook to prevent them from working in cities that had not created regulatory frameworks for ride-sharing.

There is another reason why Uber wants to avoid drivers becoming employees, and it’s all about money. Given employee status, drivers would be entitled to various benefits (such as insurance) and possibly even the right to a vehicle to work with. Uber has resisted moves to make drivers employees, and in turn vehicle owners have responded by taking the company to court.

Several class action lawsuits led by drivers have been filed against the company. There is no Uber driver’s union, but those who use the app for work are mobilizing like there is one. Slowly but surely, Uber is losing these class actions and being forced to make monetary and benefit concessions to drivers.

That means, either way, Uber is paying for drivers and for a company that fails to make profit, it’s a real problem. Imagine if it would be one-day possible to remove drivers from the equation entirely.

Uber has turned to autonomous vehicles for a solution. It is one of the earliest and most aggressive self-driving technology developers. While Uber does not build autonomous tech, the company has been quick to adopt it in vehicles and to test those vehicles on public roads. By getting into the market early, Uber clearly envisions a day when a fleet of self-driving cars will replace drivers.

Of course, the eventuality is some way off. Autonomous vehicles come in several classes, ranging from basic in-car abilities to full autonomy where the vehicle performs all tasks:

  • SAE Level 0 – human does everything, like current cars
  • SAE Level 1 – some in-car systems can aid the human in the operation of the vehicle
  • SAE Level 2 – the autonomous tech can complete some driving tasks, but human monitoring is needed.
  • SAE Level 3 – the system conducts some driving and monitors some of the environment, but human must be ready as backup
  • SAE Level 4 – the system can conduct driving tasks without any input from humans. However, the system only works under some conditions. This is where the current market is.
  • SAE Level 5 is when the car can perform all tasks without the need for a human driver.

While higher SAE levels are not expected for years (SAE Level 5 is over a decade away), Uber is playing a long game. While this will all be bad news for drivers, the race is now on. Uber will fight to prevent drivers becoming employees or enjoying the corresponding benefits until it can roll out fully autonomous vehicles.

In the meantime, drivers will continue to push through the courts to be given the dues they arguably deserve. It’s a compelling battle of wits that will be interesting to observe over the next decade.

However, Uber’s self-driving tests will now be under closer scrutiny following the first fatality.  Authorities in the U.S. state released a video showing the moment a pedestrian was hit by a self-driving Uber SUV as she crossed a darkened street. 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg was struck by the vehicle on Sunday and died from the impact. The Volvo SUV was fitted with early-stage autonomous technology.

Uber’s self-driving fleet requires a human occupant, but the backup driver was looking down and looked stunned just before the impact. The SUV’s light’s failed to illuminate Herzberg until seconds before the collision, leaving it too late for corrective measures to be undertaken.

While authorities say the vehicle is unlikely to be found at fault, the spotlight is now on Uber’s autonomous ambitions. As the company gets more desperate to prevent driver power, will it be able to maintain a consistent and safe testing program?