WA Post: Interview about “Has Uber’s day of reckoning arrived?”

Washington Post, March 10, 2017

(Interview by Frederick Kunkle)

Steven Hill, who wrote about Uber in his book about the sharing economy, compared Uber’s alleged deception about its autonomous vehicles to the practices of Big Tobacco. Uber is betting big on developing an autonomous fleet of driverless taxis, but it has also been accused of deceptive claims about its self-driving program before. Last September, Uber launched a self-driving demonstration in Pittsburgh that was designed for maximum media attention. It was supposed to show that the company was making progress in its plan to put a fleet of autonomous vehicles on the road.

“Instead, they revealed that autonomous vehicles are still pretty clunky contraptions and nowhere near-ready for prime time,” Hill said.

Hill, author of “Raw Deal: How the Uber Economy and Runaway Capitalism Are Screwing American Workers,” said several accounts of the project published by ride-along journalists generated more skepticism than belief. Some noted that human drivers had to keep their hands on the steering wheel at all times in case they had to steer out of trouble when the algorithms went off course. During one trip, the human overseer had to take command at least 30 percent of the time, Hill said.

“There were other reported problems, too,” Hill said in a post for Tripping. “The self-driving cars couldn’t pass on the left, even to move around a truck blocking the right lane; they couldn’t make right turns at red lights, since the algorithms can’t edge forward and scan for traffic — which frustrated the heck out of human drivers waiting behind.”

Some self-driving cars moved like snails and still got into scrapes and fender benders, Hill said. One autonomous vehicle headed down a one-way street.

“What was Uber’s response?” Hill said. “Blame the human drivers.”

Perhaps Uber has to shift the blame, since Kalanick has been quoted as saying that building an autonomous fleet is of “existential” importance to his company. Robotic vehicles offer a potential workaround for that most vexing problem: human drivers, and the need to be paying and constantly recruiting them.

That may explain why Kalanick’s video cameo was so damning: It seemed to confirm the low opinion the company is said to have for the proles who drive for it.