As robotaxis arrive, Miami’s Uber and Lyft drivers fear they’ll be left at the curb

·4 min read

Uber and Lyft have long advertised that driving for them is a great way to earn extra cash.

For Miami-area residents like Humberto Pimental, 58, driving for Lyft for the past four months has now turned into 50% of his regular income. The rest he gets from selling tires, and business there has slowed.

So the announcement that autonomously driving Lyfts will soon be arriving in the city makes him apprehensive.

“Every ‘robocar’ they put on the street is one job less,” said Pimental, who has a wife, two daughters and a mother-in-law living at home.

Self-driving technology group Argo AI, along with Ford and Lyft, announced last month that they would begin testing 1,000 self-driving ride-hail vehicles — nicknamed “robotaxis” — in Miami and Austin this winter. It continues the work Argo AI and Ford have performed testing self-driving Ford cruisers in Miami starting in 2018; last fall, Ford announced it was increasing its Miami testing footprint.

Experimental autonomous vehicle arrives on Espanola Way for a drop-off on Tuesday, December 8, 2020. Ford and its technology partner Argo AI are using their experimental autonomous vehicles to deliver school supplies and fresh greens to Miami Dade Schools families.
Experimental autonomous vehicle arrives on Espanola Way for a drop-off on Tuesday, December 8, 2020. Ford and its technology partner Argo AI are using their experimental autonomous vehicles to deliver school supplies and fresh greens to Miami Dade Schools families.

The results of those tests will carry extra urgency in Florida, which has some of the highest densities of ride-hail drivers in the country. Uber has previously said that, prior to the pandemic, it had approximately 100,000 drivers operating in Florida — equivalent to about one out of every 100 workers in the state. Lyft declined to say how many drivers it has here.

While experts agree that it is unlikely 100% of the platforms’ fleets will ever become autonomous, the start of the tests signals that robotaxis will be here faster than many have assumed. Asad Hussain, a senior analyst at venture data group Pitchbook who covers the autonomous vehicle industry, said that by 2030, it not before, self-driving Ubers and Lyfts would start to become more common.

“The big value add here is that you don’t have to pay the labor cost of a human driver,” Hussain said. “...You’re reducing the cost of transportation, but on the flip side, what happens to drivers is a really important question.”

The pressure to automate has, if anything, become more intense, he said, now that companies are facing higher wages, a trend that has coincided with a shortage of drivers amid the pandemic.

The industry has responded to fears of a robot takeover by saying that whatever jobs will be eliminated will likely be offset by new jobs the autonomous vehicles will create, including fleet management positions to service and maintain vehicles as well as an ongoing need for safety drivers and test drivers to map out new cities, teaching the vehicles new roadways.

A Lyft representative pointed to CEO John Zimmer’s previous comments about a future where demand — including for drivers — will actually increase as robotaxis roll out.

“When autonomous cars can only solve a portion of [trips], more Lyft drivers will be needed to provide service to the growing market of former car owners,” Zimmer wrote in 2016.

That does little to placate Walter Ruiz, 34. The Miami-area ride-hail driver said he has been making good money since he began driving late last year — as much as $17 an hour. It’s a rate he says is still more than many employers still desperate for workers are willing to offer. He said he has applied to become a firefighter, but for now drives for at least eight hours a day to support his wife, sister and parents.

“It would be hard for us if they’re going to be taking our jobs,” Ruiz said.

Elliot Katz, co-founder and chief business officer of Phantom Auto, a remote operations company that works closely with large third-parties focused on automation, said the days when a human will never be “in the loop” of a self-driving car’s itinerary are far off. Katz previously worked as an attorney in law firm DLA Piper’s autonomous vehicle practice.

A driver remotely operates a forklift. Large equipment and logistics companies like Mitsubishi are deploying such technologies in their warehouses.
A driver remotely operates a forklift. Large equipment and logistics companies like Mitsubishi are deploying such technologies in their warehouses.

Instead, he said, a more imminent scenario will see self-driving cars operating with remote operators sitting in an office somewhere and ready to take over a car should it run into trouble, or should a human request intervention. It’s already happening at some warehouses, where some forklifts are now operated from a remote location. In May, Phantom partnered with Mitsubishi’s logistics unit to deploy remotely operated forklifts.

“So people who are in the current state of things driving ride-hail, in a future state could be remote operators,” Katz said.

Katz acknowledged that Uber and Lyft driving jobs don’t require prior experience or a college degree, but pointed out that these individuals can perform remote operator jobs. Remote operation training is provided — and the job being remote eliminates the need to leave one’s office, or even house.

But that would take away a key element that a Miami-area ridehail driver named Roben, who asked that his last name not be used for fear of retribution, said got him driving soon after arriving to the area from Venezuela. Robotaxis, he said, would likely result in lost work for drivers like him.

“I’m my own boss,” he said. “I own my own time.”

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