The challenge of robotaxis for the poor
While I'm very excited about the coming robocar world, there are still many unsolved problems. One I've been thinking about, particularly with my recent continued thinking on transit, is how to provide robotaxi service to the poor, which is to say people without much money and without credit and reputations.
In particular, we want to avoid situations where taxi fleet operators create major barriers to riding by the poor in the form of higher fees, special burdens, or simply not accepting the poor as customers. If you look at services like Uber today, they don't let you ride unless you have a credit card, though in some cases prepaid debit cards will work.
Today a taxi (or a bus or Uber style vehicle) has a person in it, primarily to drive, but they perform another role -- they constrain the behaviour of the rider or riders. They reduce the probability that somebody might trash the vehicle or harass or be violent to another passenger.
Of course, such things happen quite rarely, but that won't stop operators from asking, "What do we do when it does happen? How can we stop it or get the person who does it to pay for any damage?" And further they will say, "I need a way to know that in the rare event something goes wrong, you can and will pay for it." They do this in many similar situations. The problem is not that the poor will be judged dangerous or risky. The problem is that they will be judged less accountable for things that might go wrong. Rich people will throw up in the back of cars or damage them as much as the poor, perhaps more; the difference is there is a way to make them pay for it. So while I use the word poor here, I really mean "those it is hard to hold accountable" because there is a strong connection.
As I have outlined in one of my examinations of privacy a taxi can contain a camera with a physical shutter that is open only between riders. It can do a "before and after" photograph, mostly to spot if you left items behind, but also to spot if you've damaged or soiled the vehicle. Then the owner can have the vehicle go for cleaning, and send you the bill.
But they can only send you the bill if they know who you are and have a way to bill you. For the middle class and above, that's no problem. This is the way things like Uber work -- everybody is registered and has a credit card on file. This is not so easy for the poor. Many don't have credit cards, and more to the point, they can't show the resources to fix the damage they might do to a car, nor may they have whatever type of reputation is needed so fleet operators will trust them. The actions of a few damn the many.
The middle class don't even need credit cards. Those of us wishing to retain our privacy could post a bond through a privacy protecting intermediary. The robotaxi company would know me only as "PrivacyProxy 12323423" and I would have an independent relationship with PrivacyProxy Inc. which would accept responsibility for any damage I do to the car, and bill me for it or take money from my bond if I'm truly anonymous.
Options for the poor
Without the proxy, robotaxi operators will want some sort of direct accountability from passengers for any problems they might cause. Even for the middle class, it mostly means being identified, so if damage is found, you can be tracked down and made to pay. The middle class have ability to pay, and credit. The poor don't, at least many of them don't.
People with some level of identity (an address, a job) have ways to be accountable. If the damage rises to the level where refusing to fix it is a crime at some level, fear of the justice system might work, but it's unlikely the police are going to knock on somebody's door for throwing up in a car.
In the future, I expect just about everybody of all income levels will have smartphones, and plans (though prepaid plans are more common at lower income levels.) One could volunteer to be accountable via the phone plan, losing your phone number if you aren't. Indeed, it's going to be hard to summon a car without a phone, though it will also be possible using internet terminals, kiosks and borrowing the phones of others.
More expensive rides
A likely solution, seen already in the car rental industry, is to charge extra for insurance for those who can't prove accountability another way. Car rental company insurance is grossly overpriced, and I never buy it because I have personal insurance and credit cards to cover such issues. Those who don't often have to pay this higher price.
It's still a sad reality to imagine the poor having to pay more for rides than for the rich.
An option to mitigate this might be cars aimed at carrying those who are higher risk. These cars might be a bit more able to withstand wear and tear. Their interiors might be more like bus interiors, easily cleaned and harder to damage, rather than luxury leather which will probably be only for the wealthier. To get one, you might have to wait longer. While a middle-class customer ordering a cheap car might be sent a luxury car because that's what's spare at the time, it is less likely an untrusted and poor customer would get that.
Before we go do far, I predict the cost of robotaxi rides will get well below $1/mile, heading down to 30 cents/mile. Even with a 30% surcharge, that's still cheaper than what we have today, in fact it's cheaper than a bus ticket in many towns, certainly cheaper than an unsubsidized bus ticket which tends to run $5-$6. Still my hope for robotaxi service is that it makes good transportation more available to everybody, and having it cost more for the poor is a defect.
In addition, as long as damage levels remain low, as a comment points out, perhaps the added cost on every ride would be small enough that you don't need worry about this for poor or rich. (Though having no cost to doing so does mean more spilled food, drink and sadly, vomit.)
Over time, fortunately, poor riders could develop reputations for treating vehicles well. Build enough reputation and you might have access to the same fleet and prices that the middle class do, or at least much cheaper insurance. Cause a problem and you might lose the reputation. It would be possible to build such a reputation anonymously, though I suspect most people and companies would prefer to tie it to identity, erasing privacy. Anonymous reputations in particular can be sold or stolen which presents an issue. One option is to tie the reputation to a photo, but not a name. When you get in the car, it would confirm you match the photo, but would not immediately know your name. (In the future, though, police and database companies will be able to turn the photo into a name easily enough.)
Poor riders would still have to pay more to start, probably, or suffer the other indignities of the lower class ride. However, a poor rider who develops a sterling reservation might be able to get some of that early surcharge back later. (Not if it's insurance. You can't get insurance back if you don't use it, it doesn't work that way!)
It could also be possible for the poor to get friends to vouch for them and give them some starter reputation.
Unfortunately, poor who squander their reputation (or worse, just ride with friends who trash a car) could find themselves unable to travel except at high cost they can't afford. It could be like losing your car.
The government will have an interest in making sure the poor are not left out of this mobility revolution. As such, there might be some subsidy program to help people get going, and a safety net for loss of reputation. This of course comes with a cost. Taxes would pay for the insurance to fix cars that are damaged by riders unable to be held accountable.
The alternative, after all, is needing to continue otherwise unprofitable transit services with human drivers just for the sake of these people who can't get private robocar rides. Transit may continue (though without human drivers) at peak times, but it almost surely vanishes off-peak if not for this.
Governments could also simply force this on operators as part of the cost of doing business, effectively making regular riders subsidize the higher insurance rates of the poor.
A more serious concern of fleet owners might be non-accidental damage, ie. vandalism or even theft. In such rare events cars could move into a high-surveillance mode, beaming video of everything back home. This is something the police might investigate, and could cause the piercing of a privacy proxy service. (The most common question we get at Starship Technologies is how the small delivery robots will deal with theft or vandalism, though in reality it is far from the biggest issue.)
Some will propose solving this with surveillance. Making it clear to riders that they are under surveillance, mitigated by the mandatory destruction of the video after a day has passed. Sadly, most businesses and governments like to retain data so it's hard to accept promises it really will be destroyed, and even so, people would feel much less free in general in the vehicles. Who hasn't engaged in something private in a car? I suspect a large fraction of people have had some sort of sex in one. There are a lot of other activities that would be self-censored.
Shared vehicles and crime
The question gets more serious with shared-ride vehicles. Today, with things like UberPool, you have both a driver in the car and the knowledge that your seat-mate is paying with a credit card and is in theory identified. That could be an issue in a car with no driver and the risk of harassment or crime. We've often seen people get unruly on a bus (especially late at night on the weekend when people are drunk and being responsible by riding the bus.)
In spite of the fact that assaults in Uber are rare, there is a great deal of press and concern about them. (This is in part because the Taxis that compete with Uber want to convince people that riding in it is much more dangerous than monopoly licenced taxi.)
There are a few obvious options here. Riders can have a panic button which invokes surveillance or even a videoconference with an operations center. The remote party can't physically intervene but can stop the vehicle, call police and speak to the offender, as well as record video and any identity information.
Vehicles designed for sharing with untrustable parties can also have dividers. While not offering perfect security -- you also need to be able to open the dividers to get out the other side in case of an accident -- they can improve the privacy and security quite a bit. If the other rider is a risk, you are still vulnerable getting in or out, even if you can lock down the divider.
Shared transportation is important for the poor as it offers the lowest cost option, and it's also important at rush hour. We might see a world, however, in which the middle class refuse to share vehicles with people who are less accountable or have no reputation for reliability. Today, you often see the homeless on transit, but many on the transit wish they weren't there. It would be a strange reversal if that wish were translated into a world where nobody will ride with the homeless or poor and they have to ride alone -- at higher cost.
Get a criminal record and your chances of riding with other people will go way down. Indeed, get any negative reputation and you may ride only with other people who have no choice about it.
In general, when not pushed into it by factors at rush-hour, the wealthy will stick to private robotaxis or luxury shared robotaxis populated only by those of similar income.
People will be particularly paranoid about their children. They won't want them riding with untrusted strangers, certainly not with anybody of negative reputation. This might limit the ride options of the children as much as the people with the negative reputations. Children below a certain age also need adult supervision, performed to one degree or another by the bus driver on things like school buses. This presents another challenging problem.
Race & Pickup
In a reversal of this, the news is generally good for reputable people of minority races. Today, they find it hard to get a taxi in many places. Barack Obama has reported his experience in being unable to get a cab before he was President. One thing minorities love about Uber is they always get a ride. Robotaxis will be even more non-discriminatory. At the same time, passengers may not be, and because some races are poorer than others, on average, the factors listed above could end up disproportionately hurting certain ethnic groups. Of course, discrimination on the basis of race and similar factors is illegal in most places, but that doesn't stop it from happening.
People also like that Uber comes even in poor neighbourhoods, something that many taxis don't. Compared to taxis it has been a win for the poor and robotaxis could be, too.
What solutions do you have for providing low cost and equitable transportation to all in the world of robotaxis and shared self-driven vehicles?