When Uber metaphorically blew out the candles at its fifth birthday party Wednesday (happy birthday, Uber!), the company closed its eyes and wished to double its driving workforce from a million today to two million by the end of the year. For its sixth or seventh or eighth or ninth birthday, it wants to fire them all and replace them with robots.
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick spent much of his theatrical speech Wednesday exalting the company's disruption of the taxi industry and discussing how many employees (sorry, independent contractors) the company has hired.
"Uber is adding hundreds of thousands of drivers around the world," he said. "These are economic opportunities for men and women who want the chance to earn a better living, it was a chance for a better living and the freedom … to set their own schedule."
"When there is no other dude in the car, the cost of taking an Uber anywhere is cheaper"
Kalanick said Uber just hired its millionth driver, and, by the end of the year, he'd like to double that number. He said the ability to work for Uber to make some quick money on their own time "can feel like a small miracle" for drivers."
"People tell us that being a driver on Uber is liberating—there's no schedule, no boss, and better income through better technology," Kalanick said. "These people tell us they drive because they love the flexibility these jobs provide."
It's no secret, however, that Kalanick would prefer Uber have zero drivers at all. Already, the company is involved in various lawsuits attempting to paint them as merely users of a smartphone app platform. Next, it would very much like to automate drivers out of existence.
Today, Kalanick is talking about how life changing Uber has been for its drivers. Down the line, the service will be just as life changing, because millions of people are going to have to enter a different industry.
Just think: Their drivers will still be liberated (by a robot), not have a schedule (no need to drive, ever!), still won't have a boss (via the no job thing), and have tons of flexibility (to do anything except drive for Uber).
Remember, one year ago, Kalanick himself said that drivers are a pesky expense none of us should be burdened with.
"The reason Uber could be expensive is you're paying for the other dude in the car," he said at Re/code's Code conference. "When there is no other dude in the car, the cost of taking an Uber anywhere is cheaper. Even on a road trip."
These weren't flip, off-the-cuff comments. The company effectively shuttered Carnegie Mellon's National Robotics Engineering Center, which has some of the country's top automated vehicle researchers, by hiring nearly everyone there. It poached 40 of CMU's researchers and scientists to work on replacing drivers, not to close some of Uber's security holes.
Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is not really the point: Uber is obviously not the only company working on automating the driving profession, but it is the only company that is speaking out of both sides of its mouth on this issue. On one hand, Uber is improving the lives of millions of "single moms," "artists," indebted "students," and "freelance consultants"; on the other, those single moms and starving artists are the expensive "other dudes" in the car that must be eliminated.
Though Kalanick didn't overtly reference automation in his speech, he repeatedly painted a picture of the future that looks a hell of a lot like the one futurists are saying could be possible with driverless cars.
Cars spend too much time parked, parking lots take up too much space, there's too much traffic. All of these ills would be eased with automated cars that could constantly be in service, would rarely crash, and would connect with each other to be more efficient and ease traffic.
These are laudable goals, and automated vehicles are increasingly looking inevitable. There's certainly an argument to be made that we shouldn't employ people in dangerous jobs simply because they need money and something to do all day. But in pushing toward that future, Uber is being disingenuous in suggesting that it looks at its drivers as anything other than expensive, replaceable obligations.