Welcome a new set of commercially-active robot servants: Uber will deploy its first fleet of automated cars in Pittsburgh this month. Uber riders will soon be able to hail self-driving cars in the city, though the "self-driving cars" will still come with human drivers (at least for now).
But some human Uber drivers are freaking out. "Everyone should quit now and stop bringing in funds to Uber," wrote one commenter on UberPeople, a forum for drivers. "They want to kill all your jobs."
Last year, Uber poached 50 people from Carnegie Mellon's National Robotics Engineering Center to work on its driverless grand plan. The ride-sharing company has been testing out automated cars without paying passengers on Pittsburgh's roads since the spring. Pittsburgh's mayor, Bill Peduto, has acted as an ally to ride-sharing companies, advocating to allow them to operate in the city in general. All the pieces were in place; Uber's now simply added customers.
Bloomberg Businessweek, which broke the news, explains that the new cars will be accessed like human-driven Ubers, through the company's app, though riding in them will be free for now. It's also going to be a comparatively small subset of the service. There will be 100 self-driving Uber cars by the end of 2016, all modified Volvos with engineers in the front seat, just in case:
Uber’s Pittsburgh fleet, which will be supervised by humans in the driver’s seat for the time being, consists of specially modified Volvo XC90 sport-utility vehicles outfitted with dozens of sensors that use cameras, lasers, radar, and GPS receivers. Volvo Cars has so far delivered a handful of vehicles out of a total of 100 due by the end of the year. The two companies signed a pact earlier this year to spend $300 million to develop a fully autonomous car that will be ready for the road by 2021.
However, the report adds that it's not an exclusive deal, and that Uber's planning to make deals with other car manufacturers. Additionally, Uber's ramping up its investment in automated vehicles beyond cars. It has acquired the self-driving truck company Otto, which was started by former Google employees.
As Brian Feldman points out, this means Uber is trying to automate an industry that accounted for 1.8 million jobs in 2014, which will probably cause more tension over an already-existing point of concern in the U.S. labor market.
Drivers who use the app are now in an even more precarious position. Earlier this year, Uber spurred protests by cutting their rates. Although the current free-to-ride model for automated cars won't last, this is just more evidence of Uber's long-game. Fully automated cars would cut drivers out of the equation entirely.
While that remains unfeasible for now, it does mean drivers using the app are helping to fund their own obsolescence. On forums like UberPeople, some drivers have already begun discussing what this means for them. Reactions range from resignation to arguments that there'll be ways for them to stick around to hopes that the autonomous cars will kill a pedestrian so that they're banned.
One commenter on UberPeople even speculated that Uber was bringing about its own demise, writing:
Why do people use taxis and uber now when they go out for an evening? So they don't have to drive home drunk would be the answer. Now if someone owns a driverless car in the future then why would they need ubers driverless car service. Your car could drop you off then you could send it home and return for you later when you summon it.
But what, if any, action drivers will take still remains to be seen.
*Updated with comments from UberPeople driver forum.
Ethan Chiel is a reporter for Fusion, writing mostly about the internet and technology. You can (and should) email him at firstname.lastname@example.org