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David DeHetre / Flickr (CC by 2.0) | Remix by Max Fleishman

The false hope of the Uber economy

Is this the prequel to our robotic, jobless future?


Gillian Branstetter

Internet Culture

Posted on Mar 22, 2016   Updated on May 27, 2021, 1:31 am CDT

The race for robot home delivery just got a bit more crowded. 

Following high-profile pushes by Amazon and Google to master the art of the drone delivery, Domino’s Pizza unveiled their own automated entry in the form of Domino’s Robotic Unit, or DRU.

Billed as “the world’s first autonomous pizza delivery vehicle,” the DRU has a 12-mile range and is equipped with a warming oven and security cameras (to prevent theft of its cheesy cargo). On trial only in New Zealand, that country’s Transport Minister hailed the DRU as “an exciting opportunity for New Zealand” and part of their mission of “actively and aggressively promoting New Zealand as a test bed for new transport technology trials.”

The pizza deliverers of New Zealand might not see things the same way. The focus of Google, Amazon, Uber, and now Domino’s on freeing themselves of the shipping end of their business is likely to result in the loss of thousands, if not millions, of jobs. Autonomous trucking will likely kill off one of the most common means of livelihood in the United States by removing the need for truck drivers. The race between Amazon and Google towards drone deliveries, if successful, will transform the package-and-mail delivery economy in a way that won’t be kind to couriers. Uber’s own investment into self-driving cars stands to replace not only their own fleet of “self-employed” drivers but the entire taxi and public transport industry.

The race between Amazon and Google towards drone deliveries, if successful, will transform the package-and-mail delivery economy in a way that won’t be kind to couriers.  

All of the low-skilled work threatened by such innovations make up large portions of the so-called “gig economy” or “Uber economy”—freelance work running errands for urban elites, usually serviced by apps like Instacart, Taskrabbit, Postmates, and ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft. Often enveloped under the preferred nomenclature of a “sharing economy,” such work offers the promise of constantly-available work doing with little training or education necessary. According to an analysis conducted by TIME magazine, more than 90 million Americans have participated in the gig economy with more 45 million offering their services through such apps.

Some advocate the sharing economy as a solution to the coming robot takeover many economists and technologists predict. Taskrabbit, for one, envisions itself “changing the way people are thinking about labor” by completely reimagining the entire job market as one big temp agency. A report by Alan Kreuger, Princeton professor and former chairman of President Barack Obama’s Board of Economic Advisers, suggests apps like Uber increase the demand for a variety of low-skilled labor, exactly the kind of work threatened by automation. And consumers agree—a survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers found the vast majority of participants in the sharing economy believe it makes life more convenient, more affordable, and is even better for the environment.  

What many of these participants might not realize, however, is the sharing economy is a temporary salve for the companies that make it run. The low-skilled work offered by these apps are often easily replaced by existing technologies and, as Domino’s and other companies are showing, may very well soon be replaced by further innovations. The 12-mile radius of a device like the DRU means it could easily serve most major urban areas, the most popular location for delivery apps of any kind. The coming wave of automated vehicles will likely wipe out the economic opportunity created by Uber and Lyft. Even the most popular gig-oriented jobs offered on Taskrabbit—assembling furniture—are slowly being replaced by calls from small businesses for data entry and other menial office tasks at high-risk of being replaced by software.

The coming wave of automated vehicles will likely wipe out the economic opportunity created by Uber and Lyft.  

Perhaps no company has been as transparent about its intent to replace its workers as Uber. At the 2014 Code Conference, CEO Travis Kalanick suggested investments in driverless vehicles would keep costs down for the consumer, stating “When there’s no other dude in the car, the cost of taking an Uber anywhere becomes cheaper than owning a vehicle.” Recent years has seen Uber poaching scientists from major robotics labs and testing completely autonomous cars in U.S. cities. Asked what he would say to the Uber driver he’s seeking to replace with a machine, Kalanick responded “this is the way of the world, and the world isn’t always great.”

One could even speculate this is the reason companies like Uber completed so little initial investment in human resources—humans being a mere stepping stone towards the idealized vision of full automation. Uber has notoriously shrugged off complaints by and about its drivers, and other companies making big investments in robotics, like Amazon and Foxconn, have similarly struggled to capture their desired efficiency while treating their workers with dignity and respect. When your final goal is to staff your company with robots—who can’t complain about pay or working conditions or who can’t sexually harass passengers—the humans you must deal with in the meantime can only seem like a hassle.

This is the threat now facing the sharing economy, which likewise suffers from a severe lack of human resources management. The bare bones regulation of these services means both employees and consumers are left to the wind on issues ranging from poor service and a lack of work to struggling to collect benefits or manage taxes. Most workers likely don’t realize it’s less like making money on eBay and more like running their own business, simply because these apps refuse to run it for them.

Once these workers can be replaced by machines, however, the services will, indeed, run smoother if the technology progresses along current lines. Picking up your pizza from a robot could be convenient and novel, even removing the necessity to tip a delivery driver. One could easily imagine such innovations influencing most consumer choices, especially as online shopping continues to take a larger chunk out of brick-and-mortar retail. The sharing economy, according to its advocates, should pave the way to a future of co-reliance and financial independence. 

Instead, it may end up being the prequel to our robotic, jobless future.

Gillian Branstetter is a social commentator with a focus on the intersection of technology, security, and politics. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Business Insider, Salon, the Week, and xoJane. She attended Pennsylvania State University. Follow her on Twitter @GillBranstetter.

Photo via David DeHetre/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Max Fleishman 

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*First Published: Mar 22, 2016, 7:30 pm CDT