Ride-Sharing & Autonomous Vehicles: Social Responsibility in the Tech Environment

By: EIC Student

Let’s Uber

“Let’s Uber” has become just as popular as phrases like, “just Google it” or “pass me a Kleenex.” The name of the company is now ubiquitous.

Uber was founded in 2009 and is now available in 84 countries and 734 cities. In October 2016, Uber had 40 million monthly riders. Lyft is catching up to Uber’s market share.

This blog post focuses on the ways that ride-sharing companies and autonomous vehicles impact our society. From auto-industry workers to urban transportation, the rapid advance and adoption of these services are changing our social fabric.

What Happens to the Auto Industry?

The question becomes: what happens to auto industry workers, valet attendants, taxi drivers, car service companies, truck drivers, for-hire drivers, para-transit drivers, and auto-shop workers? Is it the social responsibility of companies, such as Uber and Lyft, to address the loss of jobs and changes in these industries? Can lawyers help?

There are arguments both for and against these changes. The below sections will address each side of the argument. Then the blog post will then address the role of lawyers in the equation.

The Benefits of Disrupting the Auto Industry

Many advocate for the expansion of ride-sharing services and autonomous vehicles. Here are some of the arguments:

·         Uber and self-driving cars allow the elderly to regain mobility as many no longer have a driver’s license due to vision impairment.

·         Self-driving cars reduce the number of deaths on the road because most accidents occur due to human error.

·         Under a ride-sharing economy, a car owner that only drives a few hours per day is now able to gain additional value in working as an Uber or Lyft driver.

·         Riders will no longer be bogged down by a road-rage-filled commute. Instead, commuters can talk on the phone with family, catch up on work, read or rest.

·         Traffic and fuel efficiency will improve resulting in a reduction in carbon emissions.

The auto-industry is jumping in headfirst: General Motors invested $500 million in Lyft for self-driving vehicles; Ford acquired Chariot, another ride-sharing service; and other car companies are investing in similar ride-sharing initiatives. Lyft has created Lyft Express, in which the company provides drivers with cars to increase the cars available for users. Alphabet is about to invest $1 billion in Lyft.

Chris Urmson, CEO of Aurora Innovation, believes that there will no longer be a need for individual car ownership. Aurora Innovation designs and develops the sensors, software, and data services needed to deploy autonomous vehicles. Urmson believes that people own cars out of convenience, but that most drivers do not enjoy driving. Instead, Urmson thinks that people will gravitate towards the ease with which they can ride in an autonomous vehicle. Urmson views autonomous vehicles as functioning like buses or a subway system in an urban center, except, the vehicles will be specifically geared towards the riders’ discrete destination.

The Argument Against Disrupting the Auto Industry

On the flip-side, there are many opponents to the vast changes that are impacting the auto industry. How can Uber help a person who lives in a rural area without cell service? How can Lyft help an elderly person who does not know how to operate a cell phone to call a ride? While “disruption” and the ease of calling an Uber enhance the lives of many, these advancements have no impact on or detriment the lives of others. Here are some of the arguments:

·         Self-driving cars and ride-sharing services destroy the auto industry, a central and historical asset to the American economy.

·         Some fear the general advances of robots, as humans may lose control of their creations. The New York Times recently titled an article, “Facebook’s Frankenstein Moment,” discussing how Facebook is no longer able to control its product.

·         The imperfection of the autonomous vehicle technology scares Americans, especially after Tesla’s accident in which a driver died while the car was on autopilot.

·         Loss of jobs is the main reason that many oppose autonomous vehicles and ride-sharing services. These services would wipe out taxi drivers, truck drivers, etc. For example, New York City has 45,000 for-hire drivers whose careers could be erased.

·         Federal and state regulators are not ready to implement regulation that addresses a mix of self-driving and non-self-driving cars on the road.

While there are arguments on both sides of the coin, ultimately, ride-sharing services and autonomous vehicles will become a tenet of our technologically-driven society. As a result, we must figure out the best way to move forward.

Social Responsibility and How Attorneys Can Help

Scott Galloway, Founder of L2 and NYU Professor, believes that Uber is so entrenched in our society that even with the recent scandals, the company is not going away anytime soon. Urmson believes self-driving cars and autonomous vehicles will have a grave impact on the jobs of millions of American workers. Thus, these companies have a social responsibility to address their impacts on society.

This is where attorneys can provide value. Attorneys can counsel ride-sharing companies and autonomous vehicle companies to consider their social impact on the broader workforce.

There are two ways that attorneys can help:

1. Create Programs for the Existing Large, Tech Companies in the Auto Industry

·         Attorneys can draft decrees that show the companies’ commitment to helping industry-specific workers.

·         Attorneys can brainstorm ways to assimilate industry-specific workers into a new tech force for the ride-sharing and autonomous vehicle economy. They can create programs in cities like Detroit, New York City, and Pittsburgh to train auto industry workers, truck drivers, and for-hire drivers to work in conjunction with the autonomous vehicle production, vehicle repair, vehicle oversight, and vehicle dispatch.

·         Attorneys can engage in corporate governance to ensure that the companies consider the ripple effects of their services.

2. Guide New Tech Start-ups in the Ride-sharing and Transportation Space

·         Attorneys can guide the smaller start-ups with their leadership and goals at the outset of their formation to consider these issues.

·         Attorneys can help guide the entrepreneurs to sources to inform them about effective leadership. Frances Frei, currently SVP at Uber for Leadership and previously a Dean at Harvard Business School, has written extensively on leadership and is now trying to help Uber through its leadership crisis. Amongst other things, Frei believes that founders should focus on the first 180 days and engage in teamwork.

·         Attorneys can help implement hiring programs that source applicants and professionals from rural areas and non-coastal areas to create a more diverse employee base.

Attorneys can help steer the conversation towards the social responsibility of these companies.

Conclusion

As cars are viewed as a service instead of a good, as autonomous vehicles take over the jobs of drivers, and as ride-sharing services flood cities, it is incumbent on attorneys to advise these companies to consider their social impact. Attorneys can guide entrepreneurs and companies to engage in socially responsible behavior as we continue to embrace the advances in technology. 

Change is good, and “disruption” in the auto industry may result in more efficiency, accessibility, and autonomy for all. Let’s Uber.