Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: The fight over Uber drivers will end when Uberbots hit the streets

Uber has been kicking up more turbulence in the transportation industry, riling up taxi drivers and banging heads with regulators and elected officials around the country, around the world.

Oh yeah — and around South Florida, where unhappy travelers who used the car service to get to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport discovered last week that they had to find another way to get home.

The hapless passengers were so much collateral damage in ever escalating hostilities. Uber has been tussling for months with county governments in Miami-Dade and especially Broward, where the county commission voted last week to seek a court injunction against the ride-sharing service for flouting the county’s “transportation network” regulations.

The new regulations, of course, were only concocted to stave off the likes of Uber and to please Broward’s politically influential taxi industry. The commissioners, just to make sure the ride service interlopers were paying attention, voted to impose uber-sized fines for violators — $1,000 a whack.

The Sun Sentinel reported that Uber sent emails warning its network of drivers to pick up no more customers at the airport and cruise port. “Please note that any partners attempting to circumvent this restriction may have their Uber account subject to deactivation, and Uber will not cover any citation received as a result of pickup at FLL and Port Everglades.”

Drivers, if they’re sneaky enough, can still drop passengers off at the airport and cruise port terminals. Apparently they’ve adopted the same surreptitious methods employed at Miami International Airport and Port Everglades, coaxing passengers to sit in the front seat, as if an Uber driver were dropping off his cousin Billy.

Variations of the great Uber imbroglio are breaking out all over. Last month in London, black cab drivers — referring to their quaint black vehicles, not their race — shut down traffic around the transportation ministry to protest unlicensed Uber drivers cutting into their business. Three weeks later, Miami taxi drivers staged a similar traffic-clogging slow-rolling protest down Brickell Avenue. Inconveniencing other motorists, however, seems a doubtful strategy for winning public support. According to the Guardian, Labour MP Ian Austin, who might otherwise have been sympathetic to the cabbies, tweeted unhappily, “Taken 2.5 hours to get from Victoria to Westminster thanks to black cabs demo. How do I sign up for @Uber so I never have to use one again?”

Just last week, regulators in New South Wales in Australia went after Uber. And the Hungarian government issued new decrees forcing Uber drivers to undergo the same licensing requirements as taxi drivers.

On Thursday, a strike by Parisian cabbies angry over Uber interlopers escalated into a rock-throwing riot. American rocker Courtney Love was trapped in the melee, which she described in a series of frantic tweets as if she were under siege by the terrorists. “They’ve ambushed our car and are holding our driver hostage. They’re beating the cars with metal bats. This is France?? I'm safer in Baghdad.”

Baghdad happens to be one of the few major world cities where Uber doesn’t offer its app-based ride-sharing service. Angry taxi drivers are right, of course, that there is something unfair about these upstart drivers, without the burden of special insurance and chauffeur licenses and overpriced taxi medallions, who can just sign on with Uber or Lyft and make off with their customers. The ride-share business model turns on the notion that these drivers aren’t employees, with all the expenses that entails, but independent contractors.

Two weeks ago, the California Labor Commission decided just the opposite, declaring the drivers employees and setting off yet another legal fight over Uber’s insurgent tactics. But in a sense, Uber’s real business plan has been to exploit the taxi industry’s lousy reputation for inept, rude service, often conducted in foreign languages in dirty, smelly cabs. (I know people who’ll take Uber home after a night of drinking but would rather risk a DUI than call a cab.)

Uber has something else going for it: lots of money. Last month, when the company went on a multi-billion fund-raising spree, its value was set at $50 billion, making the privately held tech firm more valuable — on paper — than GM or FedEx. Which seems crazy, like another tech bubble in the making. But it does give Uber lawyers a very big war chest with which to stave off lawsuits and fight traffic charges and lobby local, state and national governments. South Florida’s conflicts are no more than minor skirmishs in the Uber world war.

All that cash has also allowed the company to invest in technology that will allow it to shrug off questions about whether drivers are independent contractors or properly licensed or dangerous ex-cons. Ultimately, Uber won’t need drivers.

Over the last few months, Uber has hired away 40 staffers from Carnegie Mellon University’s National Robotics Engineering Center — the world’s most prestigious robotics research institution (at least, before Uber gutted the department). In March the company bought out deCarta, described as a “turn-by-turn” navigation mapping company.

I’m guessing that if you’re reading this on paper, you’ll find this slightly sci-fi unbelievable. If you’re reading it on our website, maybe not so much. But Uber figures to get rid of those nuisance drivers altogether, quicker than you might suppose.

Of course, Google already has its experimental driverless cars buzzing around California. Apple has its own driverless fleet. So does Delphi Automotive. Last week Reuters reported that a Google self-driving Lexus nearly collided with a Delphi self-driving Audi in Palo Alto. (The rolling robots took evasive action.)

The bad news for headed-to-extinction cabbies, the Chinese search giant Baidu has teamed up with Daimler and plans to send driverless Audi and Mercedes-Benz cars onto the road in China later this year. This matters because over the last few months, Baidu has also been teaming up with none other than Uber to invest in car navigation systems.

According to the Christian Science Monitor, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick told techies at a computer code conference last year that “the reason Uber could be expensive is because you’re not just paying for the car — you’re paying for the other dude in the car. When there’s no other dude in the car, the cost of taking an Uber anywhere becomes cheaper than owning a vehicle.”

All Uber is really doing, taking on these months-long political battles and years-long lawsuits, is buying time until Uberbots are out on the road, hustling passengers. By the time these disputes over ride-share drivers are finally resolved, Uber dudes will be obsolete.