Automation Moving Independent Contractors Out From Behind the Wheel?

Step aside, Uber and Lyft. A government agency in California has agreed to allow autonomous vehicles to operate as taxis transporting humans and charging for their use in the city of San Francisco. The move has caused concerns among unions, public safety officials and others.

California Public Utilities Commission voted Aug. 11 to allow two companies to operate autonomous vehicles in San Francisco — Waymo, a division of Google, and Cruise, a division of General Motors. The companies were already allowed to operate autonomous taxis on a limited basis in the city, but now they can operate 24 hours per day.

In San Francisco, Cruise was allowed to offer rides in autonomous vehicles and charge for the rides prior to the decision last week. However, it had to have a safety driver present in order to charge for rides; it was not allowed to charge for rides in a fully autonomous vehicle unless the rides took place between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Waymo was also authorized to transport riders for a fee with a safety driver present prior to the decision. It could only operate fully autonomous vehicles without a driver if there was no charge to the passenger.

Concerns were raised about the potential job losses to this development. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters union in the US earlier this month took issue with comments made by Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt during a conference call with analysts during GM’s earnings call that while there are more than 10,000 human rideshare drivers in San Francisco, they aren’t working 24 hours a day like a robotaxi.

“At no point during that call did Vogt offer any explanation about what will happen to the thousands of professional drivers he hopes to displace, their families and our economy — because they just don’t care,” Jason Rabinowitz, president of Teamsters Joint Council 7, said in a press release.

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Historically, technology advances have led to more job creation than losses. And according to a report by Staffing Industry Analysts, robotics could increase productivity in many industries, improve quality and consistency and reduce labor costs.

“Robotics is expected to lead to widespread job displacement, especially in manufacturing, transportation, agriculture and other industries where tasks can be automated,” according to the Impact of Emerging Technology on Staffing report. “While robotics may displace some workers, it is also expected to create new job opportunities such as robotics design, programming and maintenance with a growing need for skilled workers who can design, program and repair these systems.”

Meanwhile, Wayve, a London-based autonomous vehicle firm, in March took Microsoft founder Bill Gates for a demonstration ride though London in a Wayve vehicle. And in April, the company  announced it was beginning a self-driving home delivery trial in London in a collaboration with Asda.

“While we do not yet have the data to judge AVs against the standard human drivers are setting, I do believe in the potential of this technology to increase safety on the roadway,” California Public Utilities Commissioner John Reynolds said in a press release.

Waymo has already been operating in other US cities, including Phoenix, which it announced in December 2022. It recently doubled its services area in that city.

In addition, Waymo said it is already providing 10,000 rides every week to members of the public with no human behind the wheel in Phoenix and San Francisco. And the company said it has already had 100,000 signups in San Francisco for the service.

For its part, Cruise was advertising for contingent worker roles on its website through staffing firms Adecco and Iconma.

Another concern about autonomous vehicles was public safety. The commission’s approval came despite objections by several public safety organizations. The San Francisco Police Officers Association, San Francisco Deputy Sheriffs’ Association and the San Francisco Fire Fighters Local 798 all wrote letters to the California Public Utilities Commission in June expressing concerns that autonomous vehicles could impede emergency responders, CNN reported.

However, Cruise’s CEO reported in the conference call with analysts that its automated vehicles have 54% fewer collisions than human drivers in similar environments in any kind of collision and 92% fewer with the automated vehicle as the primary contributor.

Rideshare drivers also have their own opinions on autonomous vehicle taxis, according to Wired. One concern: To be a good driver, you can’t always obey the letter of the law.

San Francisco is one of only a very small number of cities where autonomous taxis operate, but it likely is a harbinger for what is to come. Cruise is also bringing autonomous vehicles to other cities.

Could autonomous vehicles mean no more human rideshare drivers? According to Cruise’s Vogt, autonomous vehicles have been popular and demand will exceed supply over the next several years. So, it seems possible that rideshare drivers will become obsolete, but one question might be how long it will take.

Craig Johnson

Craig Johnson
Craig Johnson is senior editorial director at Staffing Industry Analysts. He can be reached at cjohnson (at) staffingindustry (dot) com.

Craig Johnson

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