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Not Everyone Agrees On the Future of Uber Drivers When Self-Driving Cars Arrive

October 15, 2016, 2:37 AM UTC
Transportation in Pittsburgh
PITTSBURGH, PA- May 1: An Uber automated-vehicle taking a test-drive on the 31st Street Bridge. The company has moved engineers and leased land throughout the Pittsburgh region in efforts to transform transportation for the world.(Jeff Swensen for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Jeff Swensen for The Washington Post via Getty Images

As Uber continues to push forward with its plans to develop self-driving cars, what about its millions of drivers?

Whether they should be worried or assured about their jobs depends on whom you ask. Last year, Uber went public with its plans to develop autonomous vehicles, and has since opened a research center in Pittsburgh, where last month it put the first of its self-driving cars on the road. It also acquired self-driving truck company Otto, a startup founded by a group of four former Googlers, including Anthony Levandowski, one of the original engineers on the company’s self-driving team, and Lior Ron, who headed Google Maps for five years.

But Uber’s autonomous cars still have safety drivers. in them at all times. This is in part why Rachel Holt, who manages Uber’s ride-hailing operations in Canada and the U.S., says the company’s drivers shouldn’t be worried about robots taking their jobs.

“There’s always going to be a combination of human drivers and self-driving cars,” said Holt on Monday at O’Reilly’s Next:Economy Summit in San Francisco.

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What’s more, a whole host of jobs related to these self-driving cars will spring up. For example, in the case of Uber’s food delivery service, there will still be a need for someone to bring the food from the car to the customer. And as co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick has said in the past, there will be new jobs for maintaining the cars.

“The opportunity to create self driving vehicles that have the potential to save millions of lives is something we should all strive for,” added Holt.

But that’s not how Douglas Rushkoff looks at it. At the same conference, the author of the forthcoming book Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, shared a contrasting view.

“Uber right now has drivers doing R&D for a robotic self driving car,” he said in reference to the massive amount of data the company is collecting from the millions of rides its drivers complete every day, which undoubtedly is helping in the development of its self-driving car technology.

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“If Uber was a driver-owned company, they’d be owning the company that they’re doing R&D for,” he added. Juno, a young ride-hailing startup based in New York City and Tel Aviv, is often described as the “anti-Uber” service because the company has said it plans to allocate some of its company shares for drivers.

It should be noted that Uber’s main rival in the U.S., Lyft, also classifies its drivers as independent contractors and is also working on self-driving cars in partnership with General Motors, although it’s unclear exactly what the company’s role is in developing the technology. Last month, Lyft co-founder and president John Zimmer penned a blog post predicting that by 2025, all of the company’s rides in major U.S. cities will be done using self-driving cars, which also raises questions about what will happen to its drivers.