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.

MTM5NTIzMjMxMDM5MTA0NDMy

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.

Take Me to the Nail Salon, for 79 cents

The future of ride share?
The future of ride share?

Mrs. UpintheValley decided she wanted to get a manicure over the weekend. ‘Twas raining, so she called an Uber.  She claims her app was set to UberPool by mistake, but a car was at the door in three minutes, having already picked up another passenger in the neighborhood.  Off they went, and she was deposited, quickly and dryly, two miles away at the salon.

Her bill: 79 cents.

You can’t even buy the weekly edition of the LA Times for that.  You can’t get a candy bar at the corner store.  The Metro bus is $1.75, one way.   Normal UberX is 90 cents per mile, with a five dollar minimum, and a four dollar cancellation fee.  But if you can slipstream in as the second passenger on a short Pool ride, you can turn another working American’s Prius into the Tap-Tap bus of Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Uber drivers, needless to say, hate UberPool.   First world service at Third World prices, with first world overhead eating your balance sheet.

“But I tipped him!” Mrs. U says in her defense.  Not having any singles handy, she handed him four quarters.  I type this to shame her.

To be fair, UberPool rides are rarely this cheap, but they are now an inescapable part of driving.  The arc of economic justice may be long, but in the end, ubiquity bends all prices toward zero.  In theory, a driver can turn down Pool rides. In practice, once his acceptance rate drops below 80% (and it will if he says no to Pool) he loses driver incentive$. Without incentive$, his take home drops below what one could justify for wear and tear on a good vehicle.  Pool was created in answer to rider dissatisfaction with surge pricing. Uber created incentives to mollify drivers dissatisfied with Pool pricing, but the catch is you have to drive a whole lot more than you normally would in order to attain them.

It’s a splendid thing working class people can avail themselves of an affordable ride hailing service.  It’s a blessing for the formerly unemployed and people in need of extra night work to have a side gig. The unknown element in the equation is the means of production: the car itself. We are very early in the life cycle of ride-share apps.  In my experience, the Uber payout justifies new tires and brake pads. New transmission, not so much.

When the heavy repair bills roll in this coming year or two, what then?  How many drivers will leave the app?  How many will buy the new transmission? More telling, how many will stay on the app but ride the old transmission until it spits metal shavings and drops like a hansom cab draft horse in the August heat, right in the middle of the 405 commute?

Most of them, I suspect.

Jack Baruth, who writes beautifully at The Truth About Cars, has some thoughts on that topic.

Aren't they pretty?
Aren’t they pretty?

My wife tipped her manicurist three bucks for a job well done.  She can afford to be generous with my money.

I wonder what my brother Uber driver did with the quarters.