Uber's future is driverless cars

If you’ve spent any time in a major city, you’ve probably used Uber. You’re out to dinner late, or you go to a midnight movie, or you don’t know any taxi numbers and someone says, “Call an Uber!” 

They really should say, “Push a button on your phone and request an Uber driver to your location!”

The smartphone app-powered service connects freelance drivers with people in need of a ride; it’s this focus that enrages the taxi industry the world over. Lawsuits and protests and the occasional city ban have become the norm for Uber (the company) while Uber (the service) rapidly weaves into mainstream culture.

But while the goings been rough for Uber, politically, thus far, it’s going to get a lot tougher in the coming years. And that fight is going to come from Uber’s own drivers.

“Google’s doing the driverless thing. Tesla’s doing the driverless thing. Apple’s doing the driverless thing. The question for a tech company is do you want to be part of the future or do you want to resist the future. In many ways we don’t want to be part of the taxi industry before us, so that’s how we think about it.”

That was Uber CEO Travis Kalanick on Thursday’s “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” speaking to what he sees as the inevitable future of his company and others like it: self-driving cars replacing the current system.

This isn’t a new sentiment from the young CEO.

Kalanick told veteran technology journalist Kara Swisher last year at the annual Code Conference, “The magic of self-driving vehicles is that the reason Uber could be expensive is because you’re not just paying for the car, you’re paying for the other dude in the car.”

As he sees it: you remove the drivers, replace them with a fleet of self-driving cars, and you’ve built something even more valuable than an app that connects open taxis with customers in need of rides.

Here’s Kalanick’s full answer from the Code Conference:

When there’s no other dude in the car, the cost of taking an Uber anywhere becomes cheaper than owning a vehicle. Even if you want to go on a road trip, it would just be cheaper. The magic there is that you bring the cost down below the cost of ownership, for everybody, and then car ownership goes away.

We know Uber now as a company that’s battling the taxi lobby with a service that forces competency on an entrenched, non-competitive industry. But in the near future, Uber — and Tesla, Apple, Google, and assuredly others — are actually going after the entire car industry. Uber is even partnering with Carnegie-Mellon University to help fund research on self-driving vehicles.

All that to say: The taxi industry is just the first victim of Uber in a process that’s just starting, and it’s fighting tooth and nail against inevitability. How soon will Uber drivers realise they’re just a stopgap between “disrupting” the taxi industry structure and the outright death of the driver-based taxi industry? That’s not clear, but don’t expect the drivers to go without a fight. Even if they’re fighting the inevitable.

Watch the full interview with Uber CEO Travis Kalanick from Thursday evening’s “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” right here:

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