In May 2014, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick set off alarm bells when he suggested at a tech conference that self-driving cars, and not people, were the future of Uber’s ride services. “The reason Uber could be expensive is because you’re not just paying for the car—you’re paying for the other dude in the car,” Kalanick said. “When there’s no other dude in the car, the cost of taking an Uber anywhere becomes cheaper than owning a vehicle.” Ironically, those statements also came one day after the company first trumpeted that half of its drivers working in New York City were making more than $90,000 a year (a claim that’s long since been debunked).
When those initial comments about self-driving cars triggered panic among Uber’s drivers, Kalanick quickly backpedaled. “Drivers on @uber_nyc making $90k/yr,” he tweeted. “Driverless car is a multi-decade transition. Let’s take a breath and I’ll see you in the year 2035.” And yet: Not even a full year later, TechCrunch has reported (and Uber has mostly confirmed in a blog post) that Uber has hired more than 50 senior scientists from Carnegie Mellon University and the National Robotics Engineering Center, and invested several hundred thousand dollars in building a robotics research lab that will develop a fleet of autonomous taxis.
The Uber Advanced Technologies Center in Pittsburgh will “focus on the development of key long-term technologies that advance Uber’s mission of bringing safe, reliable transportation to everyone, everywhere,” Uber wrote on its blog. Those involved in the project will “do research and development, primarily in the areas of mapping and vehicle safety and autonomy technology.” The announcement also closely followed a report from Bloomberg’s Brad Stone that Uber has begun feuding with Google, one of its biggest investors. According to Stone, Google is working on its own ride-hailing platform and Uber is considering removing David Drummond, Google’s senior vice president of corporate development and chief legal officer, from its board. Uber would not comment on the news beyond pointing to its own blog post, and Google did not respond to a request for comment.
But let’s set the Google piece aside for now, and focus on Uber’s research center announcement, which, once again, is a display of impeccably bad timing. Why is that?
Well, any progress on self-driving cars—while potentially great for consumers and overall transit efficiency—is simply bad news for the drivers that Uber employs. Already, that’s hundreds of thousands of people, and as Kalanick said at the end of 2014, the goal for this year is to create another 1 million jobs around the world through Uber’s platform. In what seemed an effort to further that goal, Uber two weeks ago released an Uber-commissioned study touting how great it is to drive for Uber. The company’s claims, co-signed by Princeton University economist and former Obama administration adviser Alan Krueger, centered on the notion that Uber is helping to create a new kind of economy—one that empowers contract workers to be their own bosses, on their own schedules, while earning a reliable income.
I hate to be the one who always rags on Uber, but here goes: Really? Sure, it’s true that no one knows yet how contract work will play out and whether the so-called 1099 model will ultimately be good or bad for workers. As Danny Vinik pointed out at the New Republic when Uber’s study initially came out, the evidence that contract jobs lead to unstable employment situations with poor benefits is, so far, weak. It’s also unclear how much longer Uber will be able to legally sustain its contractor-dependent model. Late last week, a federal judge said that Uber’s drivers might have to be treated as employees instead of independent contractors, which would change a lot. But even taking all that uncertainty into account, you know what’s a quick way to undermine your claims about building a new and sustainable work model? Announcing two weeks later that you are building a research facility to develop the technologies that will eventually render all of the people employed in that new work model obsolete.