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Uber and Robot-Driven Cars



Uber has undoubtedly taken the world by storm. Anyone who has ever needed a taxi ride, owned a smartphone, or read the news, has probably heard of them. The debates wage on as to whether they are a taxi company or a car service and whether their drivers should be governed by the same rules as taxi companies.  Now they are looking into robot-driven cars. However, robot-driven cars may give Uber an edge or it could cause them even more legal trouble.

The idea of robot-driven cars is certainly not new. Google has been exploring and even testing them for awhile. With Uber’s success, the one thing it could always use is more drivers. Thus far they have met the demand for drivers by upping their rates during busy times to encourage drivers to hit the road. A car without the need for a driver then seems like an obvious and profitable solution for a company in the transportation industry. Take out the middleman and they’re looking at increased profits overnight.

Enter Uber’s recently announced partnership with fifty scientists from Carnegie Mellon University to develop not only mapping technology but driverless cars. The technology has definite benefits, but whether human beings are ready to be driven by robotic cars ordered through an app remains to be seen.  It is one thing to take a train or a subway car with predetermined tracks, and even the majority of those have drivers. It is another to let a computer control a car you’re riding in on highways with human drivers. It could open a new set of concerns for a company already bombarded with them.

On one hand, robot-driven cars would help their cause in differentiating themselves from a standard taxi company. With ‘driverless’ cars, they would remove the need for background or quality controls of their drivers, and could argue they are a completely new industryl Regardless, without drivers all revenue would also go directly to Uber. Uber clearly has a lot to gain from robot-driven cars.

On the other hand, they could f ind themselves facing the same trouble as e-cigarettes. Though significantly different from standard Taxi service, they may, like e-cigarettes, ultimately be considered fundamentally the same traditional taxi companies. Further, the challenges robot-driven cars present are logistical and would come from within as well as without.  Uber is no stranger to challenges though, and may even get support from Google.

At a glance Google seems to be a perfect partner for them. They provide a client base and brand name, Google provides a technological prowess and near limitless economic power to make safe driverless cars a reality. However, when word was leaked by David Drumund, who sits on Uber’s board as well as being Google’s Chief Legal Officer, that Google may be in the process of making their own car service app, all bets were off. Whether the rumors are true or not, Google will probably sit back until Uber gets is legal ducks in a row. While robot-driven cars may be a ways off, Uber will keep pushing for it so long as it remains profitable.

By Varon Laub
The Wall Street Journal