Uber drivers don't have to worry about losing fares to self-driving cars anytime soon because those rookie robots won't be trusted with anything but the easiest routes.
Why it matters: Long-term, Uber's survival may depend on removing high-cost drivers from its cars, but that transition will come slowly, CEO Dara Khosrowshahi says, with human drivers handling the bulk of the rides for much of the next 15 years.
"Most of driving is neither repetitive nor predictable, but there’s a subset of routes that are," he said onstage this week at the Uber Elevate conference.
"We will get the machines to do the simple stuff, and then we will have the humans do the difficult stuff, and the two are going to co-exist for 10–15 years, for a long period of time."
That hybrid approach — within Uber's existing ride-sharing network — is why Uber's self-driving car development "is not a science project," Eric Meyhofer, head of Uber's Advanced Technologies Group, said later in an interview with Axios.
- Uber's data scientists know where the demand is, but also which trips are easiest — avoiding roundabouts or unprotected left turns, for example.
- Robot-driven cars can be trained one intersection at a time, then one square block at a time, Meyhofer says.
- The attributes of those small, easy routes can be modeled and grouped together so that when one square block is learned and becomes available to a robot driver, similar ones are too.
The bottom line: The important thing, Meyhofer says, is that riders still get to go from A to B, regardless of whether they are offered a self-driving car (for a simple route) or a human driver for their trip.
- "It's not about the technology. It's about the product," he adds.
The big picture: When Uber and Lyft went public earlier this year, both acknowledged profitability is tied to being able to replace human drivers. The timeline for a hybrid model gives insight into the viability of these businesses.
What to watch: Uber is tiptoeing back into self-driving car development with new safety policies in place after a fatal accident by one of its test vehicles in March 2018. While Khosrowshahi says self-driving cars could start appearing on Uber's network within 5 years, the company says it's not a race.
"It’s not about when do you pull the operator. It’s when should you. You shouldn’t if society isn’t ready, if your market isn’t ready. Even if regulation doesn’t prevent it, that doesn’t mean you should do it."— Eric Meyhofer