Taxicabs without drivers could be just down the road

The Google self-driving car maneuvers through the streets of in Washington, DC May 14, 2012.

This year has been full of ‘what-ifs’ for the delivery industry. Like, “What if Amazon uses drones to deliver that coffee maker to your house?”

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos told CBS’ Sixty Minutes that’s a possibility.

Or, "What if driverless cars hit the road a lot sooner than expected?”

Representatives for Google and the California DMV say those cars could be on the streets by 2017.

We’re going to add one more – “What if the rideshare company Uber goes full robo-cab?”

That’s a question techand policy  bloggers have been asking all year long.

Right now, Uber acts a lot like a taxi cab you hail from your smart phone. You use an app to call a car, and the car shows up. That simplicity has earned the company a lot of fans, including Amber Leonti. She lives in Sacramento, and she loves Uber. One time, Leonti used Uber three times in the same day – and she kept getting the same driver. At first, Leonti says the driver was real perky and happy – but later in the night, the guy was just dragging.

“But he had like eight, king sized candy wrappers,” Leonti says, adding that the tired driver offered to share a candy bar with her. “I didn’t take it, because I don’t take candy from strangers, but I liked it. I liked that he was fueling himself on sugar.”

But what if a driver didn’t have to fuel himself at all?

What if the driver was a robot?

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick spoke at a tech conference earlier this year, and it sounds like that’s where his company is headed -- robo-cabs, without drivers, taking people where they want to go.

“We’re in the business of delivering cars. We’re delivering a car to you that you can do whatever you want with,” Kalanick told the crowd, before adding, almost as an afterthought:

“Um, well the car has a driver as a well.”

Well, for now at least. Uber has gotten almost a quarter billion dollars investment from Google, and the tech giant has been a leader in developing self-driving cars. Robo-cabs would work the same as driverless cars. They would use lasers and cameras to autonomously navigate the city streets. And for the almost 250,000 human drivers working in the US, that’s bad news. On average, these drivers make about eleven bucks an hour. Mark Rogowsky, a tech writer with Forbes, says those jobs will be lost when robo-cabs hit the roads.

“I think that whether the self-driving car shows up in five or ten years, once it does, the cab driver is an endangered species,” Rogowsky says.

Taxi driver Travis Johnson heads the San Francisco Cab Drivers Association, and he says cab drivers will actually be safer than automated cars.

“The big problem when you eliminate the driver is the automated vehicle can’t make snap judgments for safety or route…like you might have to break a law to safely avoid an accident,” Johnson says.

But tech experts say as more automated cars hit the road, the safer the cars will be. That’s because those cars will be able to communicate with each other when changing lanes or when they’re in gridlock.

Some expect the first robo-cabs to be on the road in as soon as five years. But that question of safety is a big concern for the insurance industry. Pete Moraga is with the Insurance Information network of California. He says insurers will have a hard time figuring how much risk automated cars pose.

“There has to be that transition period, where these cars get on the streets whether they’re robo-cabs or personal cars, and we have a history of how they operate,” Moraga says.

Many in the insurance industry say it'll be more than a decade before you can log into Uber, order a cab, and be whisked away by a self-driving car.

About the author

John is part of KCRW's Independent Producer Project

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