If Uber and Lyft switch to self-driving cars, what about the drivers?

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Uber and Lyft have tens of thousands of drivers in the U.S. alone. The two ridesharing companies have each been in the news recently for their investments in and work with automaker partners in developing self-driving technology. The focus on autonomous vehicles begs the question, “What about the drivers?” as reported by Silicon Beat.

Lyft and its investor partner General Motors are testing self-driving technology with specially equipped 2017 Chevy Bolts in San Francisco and Scottsdale, Arizona.

Uber was in the news in connection with vehicle autonomy twice last week when it bought Otto, the self-driving truck technology company. Uber wanted its technology, not the trucks. Otto’s founders came from Google’s Self-Driving Car Project and other big-name tech firms.

Uber also sent a wake-up call to both the ridesharing and autonomous vehicle industries with its announcement last week that it will soon start offering free trips to Uber riders in autonomous technology-laden Volvos — with two engineers in the front to supervise the car’s self-driving and to monitor the data.

So what about all the drivers for the two companies, is their “independent contractor” status in jeopardy? There’s a two-part answer, according to Uber CEO Travis Kalanick.

In the short term, there’s no change in the current opportunities for rideshare drivers. There are still years of technical, logistic, and regulatory hurdles to cross before rideshare robot cars appear with no human at the wheel. “The first part is that the timescale is pretty long,” Kalanick said.

Looking out further, perhaps as much as ten years, even when self-driving cars are fully functional, legal, and accepted by the general public, there will still be jobs for drivers. Self-driving cars will most likely be clustered in cities and busy areas, but not widespread.

Even with the potential greater profit margin that could come from eliminating drivers, owning and operating vehicles will have significant costs. Major city streets and thoroughfares and airport to hotel shuttle routes are likely the best applications of driverless vehicles. Heading out to the ‘burbs or winding around major cities in lesser traveled areas should still provide plenty of work for rideshare drivers.

Kalanick said, “There are just places that autonomous cars are just not going to be able to go or conditions they’re not going to be able to handle.”

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