Thursday, May 7, 2015

My Skepticism Re: Uber Continues Unabated

Previously: What If Uber's Just A Terrible Business?

There's a City Paper article online where the author worked as an Uber driver and talks about how it works, especially the practical, can-I-make-a-living economics of it.

This web site is so awful that you apparently have to open up Developer Tools to read it, and execute this line of code in the console:

function contentRefresh(){}

But the content's great. Spoiler alert: drivers can't make money. Uber's pricing strategy matches my fear that they're using venture capital to buy off entire cities by flooding them with amazing deals which seem like they can't last forever — because they can't — while building up the economic equivalent of a mountain of legacy code which collapses into an utter shitpile the day somebody buys the company. Only in this case, the acquirer's probably a whole bunch of people buying stock.

But what really kicked my skepticism into high gear was this excerpt:
TechCrunch broke the news that Uber was building a huge robotics lab in Pittsburgh, partnering with Carnegie Mellon University to "kickstart autonomous taxi fleet development," according to a company source.

Travis Kalanick, the CEO and founder of Uber, said at a conference last year that he'd replace human Uber drivers with a fleet of self-driving cars in a second...

You can get a glimpse of his vision in a fascinating paper from Columbia University, which did several case studies on what a future with driverless cars would look like — apparently, like Uber crossed with Minority Report. And this could be coming as soon as 2020, according to both Tesla and Google, both of which are also heavily invested in the race to be a player in this huge future market.

In this world, the paper projects, fewer and fewer people own private cars, because it doesn’t make financial sense. Cars run on electricty, and most are much smaller, designed to carry only one or two people. The auto industry experiences a temporary boom, but then demand drops off a cliff. By around 2040, driverless cars are a majority on American roads. The number of cars drops by more than 90%, as do fuel consumption and emissions. Car accidents and traffic are nearly nonexistent.
So, a little context.

First, I'm a programmer, and like any programmer, I know most people's code sucks.

Second, in the late 1990s, the whole sales pitch for why young people should build the Web in the first place was that it would democratize media, eliminate the shallow hegemony of things like NBC and CNN, and replace it with in-depth, nuanced debate, because everything would be better once it revolved around the written word.

This is what we got instead.

Take the "which hormone-crazed moose are you?" quiz!

Maybe you don't remember the 1990s. Maybe you weren't there. Do you remember Heartbleed? Because that was last year. Do you remember the day the whole Internet discovered that none of our security had ever been working, and how relieved we all were when the entire rest of the world failed to notice, and civilization didn't collapse?

One mistake that stupid in one technology underpinning robot cars, and the entire world will notice.

I would have bought "by around 2040, driverless cars are a majority on American roads." It's entirely possible. But "car accidents and traffic are nearly nonexistent" makes the whole thing stink of bullshit so much that nothing can redeem those paragraphs now.

Say you want to replace trucks with robots. This is a worthy goal, and in fact I know of a cool startup headed in a similar direction. There are probably many. But keep in mind that long-haul cargo trucks are often operated by poorly-educated individuals driving under the influence of crystal meth. Your startup does not need to achieve a "nearly nonexistent" accident rate to succeed. It only needs to outperform poorly-educated individuals who are driving under the influence of crystal meth.

Also, cars are only sized for people because people make up the majority of vehicle cargo, and the entirety of vehicle operators. But if your vehicle's operator size is measured in millimeters, because it's a piece of silicon, then you suddenly only need to consider the size of your cargo. So, we're supposed to believe that traffic will become less of a problem, in a situation where there now exist compelling financial incentives to build extremely large vehicles, extremely tiny vehicles, and vehicles of every size in between?

This is a car.

These are also cars.

And keep in mind you can now use automated vehicles to transport anything.

And that cars can now have legs.

So this is what we're supposed to believe:

We're going to add an incredible level of variety to the sizes, shapes, and purposes of vehicles on the road, and in the skies. We're going to pilot them with software, not people, because software's cheaper and faster.

But this new, incredible diversity in size and purpose will not affect traffic patterns negatively. The software will not have any bugs, and if the software ever somehow does have a bug, those bugs will never be catastrophic, even though the software could be piloting any of an incredible range of possible vehicles, at any of an incredible range of possible speeds, while carrying any of an incredible range of possible cargo types — including human beings, nuclear waste, or angry bees.

Are you fucking kidding me?

The angry bees thing really happened. Fourteen million bees were released in a truck crash; the driver was stung countless times.

Here's a more likely scenario: these fuckers are going to crash a drone full of angry bees into a robot semi transporting nuclear waste, and then the whole thing is going to spill onto a fleet of robot Ubers, smashing the cars, killing everyone inside, and then turning the corpses into goddamn bee zombies with nuclear bee powers.


It's entirely possible the authors of this white paper were fools, rather than liars, but what they're saying is certainly false, one way or the other. There do not exist sufficient financial incentives for a perfect accident rate. An accident rate that keeps lawsuits from eating up profits is the most reasonable thing to expect. The higher those profits are, the more accidents they can subsidize. And that's what we can expect from the people whose code works.

But most people's code doesn't work. Most people's code almost makes sense, but not quite. So most software in very widespread use is doing things which almost make sense, but not quite, at scale.

Anyway, this report wasn't sponsored by Uber. But here's the billionth thing associated with Uber which is making my bullshit detector scream bloody murder. That's all I'm saying.

By the way, I love robots. I went to RobotsConf and piloted a drone with Node.js, and I loved every second of it. But I'm pretty sure I also crashed it into somebody's head at least twice.