Monday, September 8, 2014

(The Big Disrupt) Driverless Cars: Why Driverless Cars Will Hit London Streets Sooner Than You Think

Three months ago, a sea of black cabs clogged the heart of London for an afternoon and stage was set, Black cabs drivers were showing their teeth against Uber and media outlets both sides of the pond were already framing London Cabbies show of force as another instance of cabbies, in the words of its statement in response to Germany banning the service nationwide “put(ting) the brakes on change”[1]. However the truth is darn more complex than Uber and proponents will have you believe. The real reason behind cabbies showing up in number in the heart of London had nothing to do with the threat Uber offers to their business but Transport for London (TFL) apparently preferential treatment towards the San Francisco cab hailing firm.   

Just two months before the protest, the Licensed Private Hire Car Association (LPHCA) publicly urged TFL to force Uber to follow the same laws and regulations it’s members have to comply with and the TFL is tasked with enforcing in the first place. However, Leon Daniels, TFL’s Managing director for surface transport, pretty much sent a clear message that black cab drivers in the capital should adapt to the new innovations in a bid to “offer passengers the potential of better and more convenient services”[2] However, as Daniels knows, offering passengers a better service wasn’t the issue a hand as a growing number of cabbies are already using app friendly bookings to get fares.

In May, the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association (LTDA) expressed their dismay against Uber as from their viewpoint the the taxi hailing app company was circumventing a law that’s allows only taxis to have meters by through the use of their app that according to LTDA, basically mimicked the function of a taximeter and was therefore illegal. However, just like the LPHCA, the LTDA real aminus was reserved for the TFL who in their eyes has so far demurred to the Google and Goldman Sachs backed company. Steve Mcnamara, predicted a month in advance that the protest was going to happen as he made that his problem wasn’t with Uber but TFL and their treatment of the company as he stressed “"I'd be happy if Uber complied with the same rules as everybody else. All we are asking for is a level playing field." To complain about these issues, there's going to be a mass demonstration in central London of between 8,000 and 12,000 black cabs, who will cause "chaos, congestion and confusion"”[3].   

After a month of pressure by the LTDA and LPHCA, instead of ruling outright whether Uber’s use of their app to calculate costs in their driver’s vehicle was permitted, TFL sought a High Court was whether Uber’s app was legal or not. This not only confirmed what the LTDA and LPHCA already suspected, TFL was less than willing to take firm hand against Uber but as the BBC reported “  TFL does not believe the app breaks the rules”[4]. TFL were of the view that Uber weren’t breaking the law by virtue of their apps not being part of their vehicle as meters are in taxis despite the app in practice performing the same function as a taximeter.

This central contention along with others is why Uber has become so controversial across of number of states to the point that the app service has met a litany of legal and political pushback wherever it went. Regulators in other countries have been more deliberate in dealing with Uber with some outright banning the service but TFL has been notably weak leaving the question left worth asking: why?

TFL, like all big organizations, are less than forthcoming about their reasoning behind their behaviour towards certain actors and groups but more than in a mood to share its grand plans and in this respect we can speculate upon TFL’s and indeed the Mayor of London’s office careful and borderline preferential treatment of Uber.

In 2012, the Mayor of London office setup the Roads Task Force (RTF) tasked with coming up with a vision of the roads of London that’s fit for the 21 century. after a three month consultation period with various stakeholders, the RTF published a forward looking report in 2013 suggesting a number of changes to prepare the roads of London for 21 century that could usher the use of alternative services among them ridesharing companies like Uber, deliver drones, and the driverless car.

While the report was mostly about making London easier and safer to get around and improving the city’s road infrastructure to handle the obvious pressures of a growing population, one of the main aims was to clearly to encourage less road usage which could usher in a number alternatives, including, rideshare services (like Uber), delivery drones and even driverless cars which all would help lower the use of cars on London roads. The report was also done in conjunction with TFL who had three high ranking members on the RTF and not too longer after published its own report that was largely in agreement with the view and suggestions made by the RTF.

With the Mayor of London office, the RTF and TFL all on the same page for the need to tackle congestion in the city, it’s clear that all three parties are interested in reduction of car use. All this helps explain why London mayor Boris Johnson has been eager to bring driverless cars to London streets as well as the government announced that it will driverless cars will allowed on British roads as early as next year. Last year IBM, who had a representative on the RTF and until recently was running London’s congestion charge systems after winning a contract with TFL back in 2007, has partnered up with Google, Cisco Systems and German car parts supplier Continental AG to work on “autonomous driving systems for cars” which could see the advent of the driverless car come sooner than expected as many thought Google weren’t willing or able to get the driverless car on roads across the globe on its own[5].

Johnson got himself into some hot water while caught talking up the benefits of Google’s technology in bringing about driverless vehicles such as buses which he quick shot down after his published report, which no longer available online, caught wind[6]. While the Mayor’s report revealed his support for driverless cars and greater automation, his support for driverless cars is nowhere near as bullish as the TFL .The Guardian reported that Peter Hendy, TFL’s commissioner, wrote a foreword for a ClearChannel commissioned study talking up the potential of driverless vehicles in the capital. Professor David Begg, a former TFL board member and author of the report entitled “A 2050 Vision for London”, even forecasted the death of the taxi driver as he wrote “ "Taxi fares are expensive in London. One of the main costs is the wage/return to taxi drivers. Passengers in an AV (Autonomous Vehicle) world will be able to remotely call a driverless taxi to take them to and from their destination …”[7].

While there’s nothing wrong with Professor Begg throwing out predictions about the death of the taxi drivers, there is clearly something wrong with a high ranking TFL official writing a foreword for a report that predicts the death of a profession and industry it regulates. However LTDA’s Steve Mcnamara doesn’t seem too concerned about the Mayor and the TFL being in favour of driverless vehicles but should be given Uber’s long term plan to replace its human drivers with driverless cars as last year the San Francisco company “committed to invest up to $375 million for a fleet of Google’s GX3200 vehicles”[8].

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has publicly stated the company’s intention to increase the use of driverless cars in the company growing fleet of cars and trumpeted this development as a boon for customers as he said “ "When there's no other dude in the car, the cost of taking an Uber anywhere becomes cheaper than owning a vehicle. So the magic there is, you basically bring the cost below the cost of ownership for everybody, and then car ownership goes away””[9].

In sum, to the chagrin of its own drivers, never mind Taxi and private hire cabs everywhere, Uber seems on track to bring about Professor Begg’s grand vision and awful lot earlier than 2050 and with the Mayor or London, TFL and a gaggle of powerful corporations and business groups in their favour, whose to bet against them.

[3] Ibid
[7] Ibid

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