The Wrong Question

There’s a new survey. Well, okay, there’s always a new survey about something. The one I’m talking about is from Cox Automotive, and purports to look at attitudes toward autonomous cars. More precisely, it looks at how attitudes have changed in the past two years.

Unsurprisingly, it shows that fewer people say they’d be interested in buying a fully autonomous car, one that has no option for manual control.

Cox attributes the decline to the publicity around the Uber’s testing and the death of a pedestrian earlier this year. And they’re probably correct in that assessment.

Also unsurprisingly, while three-quarters of the survey respondents say autonomous cars need real world testing, less than half would be willing to have the testing done where they live. Not quite NIMBYism, but certainly NOMS (Not On My Street).

Because people are poor at gauging risk. From what I can tell, even at their current state of development, autonomous cars are safer than manually-driven ones on a mile-for-mile basis. But self-driving vehicles are regarded with suspicion because they’re unfamiliar.

But I digress.

What I wanted to point out here is that Cox is asking the wrong question. Because makers of autonomous cars (or would-be makers) aren’t trying to sell them to the general public.

Why not? Because people aren’t buying cars as often as they used to. Twenty years ago, the average American bought a new car every three or four years. Ten years ago, it was every four or five years. Today, the average is closer to seven years.

Serving that market isn’t a sustainable model for an automaker.

Lest you think I’m guessing about that, consider the way fully self-driving cars have been pitched to consumers. The ads and opinion pieces have been heavy on the vision of your car dropping you off at work in the morning, then coming back to pick you up at the end of the day. Summoned, of course, by an app on your phone.

Where exactly is that car going after you get out?

To take your spouse to work? Maybe–but again, encouraging consumers to share a car isn’t part of automakers’ business plan.

To park? Unlikely. It’s already impossible to find a parking space near any large business, and if your car parks at a distance, it’s going to be tough for it to pick you up in a timely fashion.

Maybe it’ll go home. But do you want to pay for gas or electricity, not to mention depreciation, from an extra round trip every single day? Probably not.

No, what the manufacturers want is for you to send your autonomous car off to drive other people around. Remember, Uber is a prime mover in autonomous car development. The idea of millions of cars–that other people buy and maintain–working for them without obnoxious drivers who demand to be treated as employees must be causing enough salivation in upper management to fill a couple of Olympic-sized swimming pools.

And if you want your car to work for you while you’re doing other things, it’ll need to be up to the standards Uber (or GM, or whoever runs the service) sets. If they say it can’t be any older than last year’s model, you’re going to buy a new car every other year. And then pay for gas and maintenance out of whatever rental fee the company decides to pay you.

Or maybe they won’t bother with selling to consumers at all. Uber Motors can make the cars and sell them at a loss to Uber Rideshare. That puts UM in a great tax position. Meanwhile, UR gets tax breaks for capital investment while simultaneously writing off the cost of maintenance and depreciation. And UR also can charge an arm and a leg for ride service because fewer and fewer consumers are buying cars. Why? Not only do they not want autonomous cars, but UM’s price to consumers is several times higher than what UR pays.

And, lest you forget, there’s only so much reduction in pollution that can be attained by increasing the number of non-polluting vehicles sold. That means, sooner or later, clean air laws will mandate older, lower mileage vehicles must be removed from the road (or cost prohibitive amounts to register). Which means fewer people will be able to afford the upfront cost to buy a new car.

If public transportation isn’t an option–and it’s not for many people–UR will be waiting to collect your money.

So it really doesn’t matter whether you want to buy a self-driving car. You’re probably not going to. But you will be riding in one.

Lucky you!

Like a Two-Year-Old

“Whether it’s a ride, a sandwich, or a package, we use technology to give people what they want, when they want it.”

That seems to be the core of the message Uber wants to convey.

Quite a paean to entitlement, isn’t it?

With a mission like that, it’s no wonder Uber gets insulted when things don’t go their way. To be quite blunt, lately, Uber has been acting like a poorly socialized two-year-old.

In case you missed it*, Uber recently deployed part of their fleet of experimental self-driving cars in San Francisco. Unfortunately for everyone, they did it “Uber-style”.

* Though it’s hard to believe anyone could have missed it, given how loudly Uber tooted their own horn, and how many news sources joined into the noise-making.

See, under California law, autonomous vehicles need to be registered as such with the Department of Motor Vehicles. Additionally, the company testing the vehicles has to purchase a permit. For the record, as best I can tell from the newspaper stories, it’s not like the registration and permit would require Uber to break into their piggy bank. I can’t find anything that suggests the cost of registering a vehicle as an autonomous test model is any higher than that of a regular registration, and at least one story noted that the testing permit cost $150. Even if that’s per vehicle, Uber could certainly have paid it out of spare change.

However, Uber, declined to properly register their cars or to purchase the permits.

Hey, remember Google’s motto? “Don’t be evil,” wasn’t it? I begin to suspect Uber’s motto is “Don’t be good.” But I’m sure that’s just my cynical streak talking.

Anyway, when the DMV called Uber’s oversight to their attention, they declined to rectify the omissions, claiming that because the cars are not actually capable of driving without human supervision, they’re not actually “autonomous”.

While Uber and the DMV traded legal opinions and insults, several of the cars were caught on video running red lights and making dangerous turns. Which suggests that either the cars are autonomous–and desperately in need of testing and debugging–or that their human supervisors could use a couple of rounds of QA testing.

In the end, Uber displayed the priceless maturity we’ve come to expect from them. They’ve picked up their toys and stomped off to Arizona where, presumably, nobody cares if a few pedestrians or bikers get crushed beneath the wheels of progress.

This small corner of the Bay Area may have handed them a temporary defeat, but Uber’s executives and investors can relax. In the rest of the world, it’s still “Uber über alles”.