The flaw in the robotaxi revolution


For one thing, driverless does not mean humanless. Machines trim the need for human labor but seldom, if ever, purge that need entirely. The reason is simple. Algorithms err, and when they do, the results can — particularly in industries such as transportation — be deadly. This seldom-discussed reality explains why regulators have never signed off on safety-critical systems being used without human oversight. Public servants know that for all their virtues, machines can’t be trusted to always get it right all the time.

Driverless car developers know this, too. Their solution? Remote control. The idea is simple. When a robotaxi malfunctions, a human intervenes to ensure passenger safety. However, rather than sitting inside the car, these “teleoperators” are located in a command center far away. Think of it as air traffic control for cars. Yet, while the setup may be lauded on safety grounds, it raises an interesting question — how many robotaxis should one teleoperator watch? The ideal answer for bean counters is as many as possible. But can one person really help a distressed vehicle while keeping an eye on several others? Would you feel safe knowing your teleoperator is watching 10, 20 or perhaps 100 other robotaxis?

Yet the real problem posed by driverless technology isn’t related to its algorithmic imperfections or safety oversight concerns. Rather, the price. Even if the technology were flawless, the cost of hailing a robotaxi would still be pricier than personal vehicle ownership today.

The reason? The taxi industry is inefficient — so inefficient that cabbies spend only a fraction of their time earning fares. The rest is spent finding them. In cities such as Beijing, 40 percent of taxi miles are driven with the back seat vacant. In Seattle, that figure rises to 60 percent. This improper matching of supply with demand carries consequences. For human cabbies today, it means less take-home pay; for driverless cab companies tomorrow, less savings that can be passed on to consumers. And less savings ultimately impacts consumer willingness to abandon traditional car ownership.

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