The Problem With Jobs in the Sharing Economy

This cute little car is going to take jobs from cabbies and Uber drivers everywhere.

Screenshot from YouTube.

Last summer, TechCrunch published a story dated July 25, 2023, headlined “Dispatch From the Future: Uber to Purchase 2,500 Driverless Cars From Google.” Despite the tongue-in-cheek nature of the post, the blogosphere missed the jest. Media outlets large and small rushed to republish the news before slowly catching on that it might not have been entirely serious. (Or plausible. When the “Dispatch From the Future” came out in August 2013, Google had yet to build a single driverless car of its own, much less 2,500 of them.)

Fast-forward nine months and the TechCrunch joke has already become reality. On Tuesday, Google unveiled its first truly driverless car: a tiny, adorable two-seater with no steering wheel, no accelerator pedal, and no brake pedal. As if on cue, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said at the Code Conference on Wednesday that driverless cars would inevitably replace human operators in Uber’s model. “This is the way of the world,” he said. So much for the report Uber released a day earlier stating that drivers working 40-plus hours in New York City could earn a median annual wage of $90,766. The role of humans in the sharing economy may be a passing fad.

We know that crowdsourcing platforms, as Annie Lowrey wrote in April, are “hurrying along the automation” of simple, rote tasks. But amid losses of these and other traditional jobs in the private sector, the sharing economy has also provided a glimmer of hope. Self-starters and people at a loss for traditional work have started cobbling together odd jobs on Uber and similarly conceived platforms as full-time occupations. Farhad Manjoo noted in a recent column that shoppers for grocery-delivery service Instacart could earn $15 to $30 an hour, a relatively high wage for a part-time job that requires no college degree:

Instacart’s success suggests that rather than simply automate workers out of their jobs, technology might create new labor opportunities for people who haven’t acquired formal credentials or skills in an economy where low- and medium-skilled workers face a bleak outlook. Like the ride-sharing service Uber, Instacart creates work by connecting affluent customers who have more money than time with part-time workers who have the opposite problem—lots of time, not enough money.

That’s true at the moment. But Uber’s quick embrace of self-driving cars is a reminder that automation is on a path to eventually overtake these and other more complex roles as well. In a recent piece in City Journal, law professor John O. McGinnis asserts that machine intelligence is poised to “disrupt and transform the legal profession” by threatening jobs traditionally held by paralegals and junior associates at firms.

Fleets of truly autonomous cars are still years away, as Kalanick rushed to remind people on Wednesday. “Driverless car is a multi-decade transition. Let’s take a breath and I’ll see you in the year 2035,” he tweeted. Or 2031 or 2042. Who knows. For now, cab drivers may choose to keep defecting to the modern and far more lucrative jobs on UberX. But the robots are coming for them, too.