Step Into My Headless Uber

Oh c'mon, don't be so uptight
Oh c’mon, what are you waiting for?

This week Uber began Beta-testing driverless cars in San Francisco, without passengers.

“In a challenge to state authority, Uber is refusing to seek a permit for the self-driving cars it rolled out in San Francisco on Wednesday, prompting California regulators to immediately attempt to shut down the program…California defines “autonomous vehicles” as vehicles that can drive without a human operator. Uber says its cars don’t count because they always have a driver behind the wheel ready to take control if the car encounters a situation it can’t navigate. Uber intends to launch driverless cars in the future, but the technology isn’t there yet.”  –San Jose Mercury News.

At a holiday dinner, I asked a teacher of robotics if she would be willing to beta-test a headless Uber without a steering wheel-grabbing back-up driver at the ready.

Her answer was unhesitant: No.

“I know from experience all the things which can go wrong.”  Her husband, an engineer, gallantly offered to play the role of, as he put it, Neil Armstrong.

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I can foresee a driverless long-haul truck on the 405 more readily than a driverless Uber doing pickups on the streets of Los Angeles.  Ride-sharing is a social process. It’s also a very improvisational one. There are few acts behind the wheel more complicated than plucking two drunk people from the corner of Santa Monica and Robertson on a weekend evening.  West Hollywood permits clubs and restaurants, no matter how large, to operate with exactly two parking spaces, one for passenger loading and another for the valet.  The drop-off/pickup process plays out in a gray area of good manners and traffic laws, with cars half in the street, half in the crosswalk, double-parked, texting alternative locations two doors down, driving around the block, waiting for bar tabs to be signed.

In brief: there is no legal method for getting it done without creating gridlock, and that’s when the passengers are behaving well. Improvisation keeps the city flowing.

Enter the Headless Uber.  That sleek grey Volvo with the radar/camera array on the roof is going to proceed exactly to the address entered on the app. A third of the time, the pin drop is on the wrong side of the street, or in the service alley. No matter, Headless Uber is going to the pin and it’s going to stop and wait right there…and wait, in the only available place, the street itself. The only alternative is to circle the block until the single space loading zone in front of Pump opens up. For how long, 10 minutes? Twenty?

It won’t respond to honking, valet parkers waving LED flashlights, outcries of irritation or obscene gestures. With that simple act of traffic obedience, lane one of Santa Monica Blvd. will disappear, from Doheny to La Cienega, so Uber Technologies, Inc. may defend itself from civic injunctions for being a serial traffic scofflaw. Lane two is going to have carry the rest of the thru traffic, the cabs, the limousines, and the old school Ubers manned by second-jobbing drivers doing night work.  The Social Contract in Los Angeles will be put to the test.

And yet!  There will always be early adopters. Techies, men mostly, won’t be able to resist the siren call of new gadgetry.  The same people who paid the equivalent of $5600 for the 128K Macintosh in 1984, with a screen the size of the iPhone 7, pixellated graphics and no applicable real-world functionality… those guys will elbow each other out of the way for a shot at Headless Uber action.

Look at us, we’re Neil Armstrong!

I can think of three wrinkles already.  1) alcohol; 2) irritation with being made to wait; and 3) machismo, fueled by nostalgia for 2015.

Club security ends at the velvet rope. The sidewalk operates by its own rules.  A latent and only half-understood class consciousness will re-assert itself, even though Los Angeles won’t have a name for it.

Call it the Tragedy of The Commons, 2.0.