Uber has succeeded in making ridesharing and the sharing economy writ large a popular and profitable idea, come hell or hot water. But Uber's latest partnership with Carnegie Mellon University's National Robotics Engineering Center to develop autonomous cars suggests a vision of the future—a future it's investing in—where there is no rideshare, and no sharing economy that Uber is a part of. There are only robots and the company that owns them.
Details on the partnership between Uber and Carnegie Mellon and its exact goals are vague, but the company stated in a blog post that it's aiming "to do research and development, primarily in the areas of mapping and vehicle safety and autonomy technology." Like Google, Uber is banking on a future without human drivers—a world full of cars that it owns, not shifting networks of mercenary taxis.
Autonomous cars don't take any cuts.
Based on Uber's recent track record, which includes frequent skirmishes with municipal governments and taxi unions, you might assume that it's been fighting for the right to rideshare—to the death, if necessary. But investing in autonomous car technology reveals an ultimate plan that does away with humans altogether, except as paying customers. So what, exactly, is Uber defending so ardently? Certainly not the sharing economy as we've known it, however briaefly.
Automation, in the transport industry as in any other, is a tool for profit. Tenuous associations with maverick not-quite-employees has allowed Uber to drive the cost of a taxi ride down, but it was only a means to an end. The end is not autonomous cars, of course, but what Uber has been angling for all along: profit and market dominance, sharing economy or not. Autonomous cars don't take any cuts.
This isn't just speculation about Uber's plans. Company executives have been explicit in their desire to drive costs down through all possible means, including getting rid of humans. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said at Code conference in 2014 that "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."
This realization is at once completely banal and somewhat disquieting. Banal, because Uber is a private company, and has already shown itself to be particularly cutthroat in its pursuit of revenue. In one notable instance, Uber was accused of sabotaging its competition in New York City by calling in fake rides. The company is somewhat of a contradiction here: relentlessly disrupting established social and economic orders while actively ossifying the base mechanisms of profit-seeking. Fixed capital runs at a lower cost than variable in the long-term. And humans are variable capital.
It is also a disquieting prospect, because rhetoric around the sharing economy and "Uber for X"-style pitches for new apps and services—yes, even weed delivery—has reached a quasi-utopian fever pitch. Forbes called the the sharing economy "unstoppable" in 2013, but by Uber's own implicit admission in its partnership with Carnegie Mellon, it was only ever a stopover.