How Corporate Delusions of Automation Fuel the Cruelty of Uber and Lyft

How Corporate Delusions of Automation Fuel the Cruelty of Uber and Lyft
Photo: Justin Sullivan (Getty)
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As drivers around the world went on strike just days before Uber’s IPO, they shared harrowing stories of being overworked and underpaid, subjected to a frustratingly opaque payment system, and even sleeping in their cars in order to save enough money to get by. Research backs up the anecdotes they relayed to the media: Studies have repeatedly found that after fees and expenses, Uber drivers make less than minimum wage in major markets. One found that half of all Uber drivers in Washington, D.C., lived below the poverty line.

The strikes, which were held in San Francisco, at Uber’s headquarters, as well as in New York, London, Chicago, Los Angeles, Sao Paulo, and beyond, were designed to draw a stark contrast between a company with a CEO that took in $50 million last year, that is aiming for a $90 billion valuation—and poised to mint numerous multi-millionaires and billionaires—and its increasingly impoverished drivers, many who say they can no longer afford basic necessities or to pay rent.

Will the worker actions put a dent in Uber’s IPO on Friday? After all, the company is operating at a truly massive annual loss, is propped up largely by an even more massive inflow of investment capital, and has already been cutting drivers’ wages in key markets. This is a sign that worker conditions are bad enough that they could destabilize Uber’s services, after all. It should be enough to make investors wary—that is, if they believed that any of those drivers would actually be around long enough to revolt.

I’d wager it won’t. The reason is pretty simple: Investors (along with the rest of us) have been told, repeatedly and colorfully, that autonomous cars are nearly here. They are inevitable, even—the next stage in Lyft and Uber’s corporate blueprints, as laid out in their executives’ public statements, ambitious research programs, and, now, SEC filings. The word “autonomous” appears more than 100 times in each companies’ IPO filing. Drivers, meanwhile, are meatbag placeholders whose general wellbeing is a concern relevant only to the extent that its degradation might disrupt service right now. They are therefore temporary and eminently replaceable. And investors have had this logic nurtured in them for years.

In 2016, then-CEO Travis Kalanick said that autonomous car technology was “basically existential” to Uber. The company was spending $20 million a month on self-driving car research, after it opened an autonomous division in partnership with Carnegie Mellon to much fanfare. As such, Uber believed it would already have 75,000 driverless cars on the road by this year. But even after the notoriously ambitious and reckless Kalanick was ousted, his replacement, Dara Khosrowshahi, said in a January, 2018 interview that he expected Uber to have self-driving cars on the streets, in operation, within 18 months. If you’re keeping score at home, that would mean we’d be seeing autonomous Ubers hit roads next month.

Two months after Khosrowshahi said that, one of Uber’s self-driving test cars would hit and kill a pedestrian in Arizona, forcing the company to pause the program. Yet testing resumed soon enough, and Uber again expects to compete and even lead in the self-driving car arena. It just received an investment of $1 billion from Softbank and Toyota, further indicating that the smart money says self-driving cars are the future.

Lyft is even more bullish on autonomous cars, if only because it’s not haunted by a recent pedestrian fatality. It is partnering with Waymo to offer autonomous rides to customers in a handful of vehicles. And in its IPO filing, Lyft claims that it will have some autonomous cars on the road within five years, and most transportation needs covered by self-driving cars in 15:

In the next five years, our goal is to deploy an autonomous vehicle network that is capable of delivering a portion of rides on the Lyft platform. Within 10 years, our goal is to have deployed a low-cost, scaled autonomous vehicle network that is capable of delivering a majority of the rides on the Lyft platform. And, within 15 years, we aim to deploy autonomous vehicles that are purpose-built for a broad range of ridesharing and transportation scenarios, including short- and long-haul travel, shared commute and other transportation services.

If you are an investor, and you buy that timeline, a few thousand noise-making workers don’t seem all that worrisome to your prospects of turning a profit. The question for them, then, is, as the Washington Post put it: “As IPO soars, can Uber and Lyft survive long enough to replace their drivers with computers?” They have little apparent reason to doubt that at least one of them will. Even though neither company has ever approached profitability, the mere fact that both have been sustained by VC cash and outside investment for over a decade now, and are pretty enticingly too-big-too-fail-shaped, will encourage investors to buy in.

So far, the timelines for self-driving car deployment have amounted to magical thinking—yet it’s had a real impact on the livelihoods of the drivers that actually make Uber and Lyft possible. The promise of autonomous car tech has kept the VC pump primed, kept the cash flowing in, and allowed ride-hailing companies to avoid producing an actual sustainable business model—one that, among other things, would account for the needs of its thousands-strong workforce. Believing that its drivers are proto-automatons has probably helped Uber and Lyft justify maintaining the difficult and even cruel conditions it keeps them working in—Lyft, for instance, recently tried and failed to get a law guaranteeing its drivers minimum wage thrown out in New York City.

Treating drivers as replaceable, disposable placeholders for algorithms is finally taking its toll. Uber even acknowledges as much in its IPO filing, which states plainly that the company plans to continue to slash wages. “As we aim to reduce Driver incentives to improve our financial performance, we expect Driver dissatisfaction will generally increase,” it notes. “Further, we are investing in our autonomous vehicle strategy, which may add to Driver dissatisfaction over time, as it may reduce the need for Drivers.”

This is taken as a fact of life, this “driver dissatisfaction,” aka the fact that Uber’s own workers openly dislike it; an issue that will be overcome only when the driver is eliminated altogether. It amounts to a warped, future-forward version of what Astra Taylor calls “fauxtomation”—services and products that only appear to be automated but are in fact made possible by human toil. In the case of the ridesharing companies, the mere *vision* of future automation prevents real drivers from receiving the decent wages and dignity they deserve.

No one knows if and/or when fully autonomous vehicles will replace taxis and ride-hailing services. (Although, if Lyft has a fleet of fully-autonomous cars in seamless operation in a decade, I’ll hail one straight into the ocean.) But the mere promise of this soon-to-unfold future is spurring both the company and its investors to discount the livelihoods of thousands of people, the drivers who are actually doing the work.

Uber may well get another handsome influx of investor cash on Friday, buffeted by visions of a sleek, app-based, self-driven future. But if it does hope to avoid that revolt before it gets there, it’d better invest in the workers behind the wheel right now.