Uber to research robocars?

Rumours reported in TechCrunch suggest Uber is opening a robocar lab in Pittsburgh and hiring up to 50 CMU folks to staff it.

Update: On the Uber blog we now see it’s more funding of research labs at CMU, on many topics

That’s a major step, if true. People have often pointed out how well Uber is poised to make use of robocar technology to bring computer summoned taxi service to the next level. If Uber did not exist, I would surely be building it to get that advantage. Many have assumed that since Google is a major investment partner in Uber that they would partner on this technology, but this suggests otherwise.

I write about Uber a lot here not just because of interest in what they do today, but because it teaches us a lot about how people will view Robocars in the future. Uber’s interface is very similar to what you might see for a robocar service, and the experience is fairly similar, just much more expensive. UberX is $1.30/mile plus 26 cents/minute with $2.20 flag drop. The Black service is $3.75/mile and 65 cents/minute with an $8 flag drop. I expect robocar tax service to be cheaper than 50 cents/mile with minimal per-minute charges. The flag drop is not yet easy to calculate. What richer people do with Uber teaches us what the whole public will do with robocars.

Uber lets you say where you are going but doesn’t demand it. That’s one thing I suspect will be different with your robotaxi, because it’s really nice if they can send you a vehicle chosen for the trip you have in mind. Ie. a small, efficient car without much range for short, single person trips. Robotaxi services will offer you the ability to not say your destination — but they will probably charge more for it, and that means most people will be willing to say their destination.

Uber does not hide their desire to get rid of all their drivers, which sounds like a strange strategy, but the truth is that cab driving is not something most people view as a career. It’s a quick source of money with no special skills, something people do until something better comes along, or in the gaps in their day to make extra cash. Unlike people losing jobs to robots on a factory line, nobody is particularly upset at the idea.

People love jobs

I'm not so sure that there will be no negative spin on cab drivers losing their jobs. I agree that everyone, including cab drivers, would be better off but I'm not so sure they'll see it that way. And cabs are easy. What about truck drivers? That's a lot of middle class jobs that will disappear. There will be much jobs related hand wringing over that one. And traffic cops. And EMTs.

Cabs and trucks

Truck drivers do more training, but we’re not talking about a lot — a few months at most of official training, though of course a lot of learning on the road. But Uber is not out to replace truck drivers, though other forces may be, and passenger vehicles may be an inefficient way to carry cargo when not carrying passengers, as some are already doing or planning. In the long term, dedicated delivery robots will be much more efficient, so it will be better to send one of those than to use an idle passenger car as a cargo van.

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His name is Brad Templeton. You figure it out.
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