Uber built its business by innovating in an industry that desperately needed it. But the engine of its tremendous success is the drivers that have flocked to its ride-hail platform en masse. At the company's last estimate in December that number was 170,000 — in the U.S. alone.
That's 170,000 drivers whose jobs might someday be at risk 20 to 30 years from now, now that Uber has kicked off an expected foray into autonomous vehicles. In a 2014 interview, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said driverless cars were the future. "If Uber doesn't go there, it's not going to exist either way," he said.
But if it does exist, there could be consequences — particularly for Uber drivers who depend on the company's platform for income. And that's an ethical dilemma the lead engineer of Uber's Advanced Technologies Center — which was created as part of a partnership with Carnegie Mellon University to develop autonomous systems — Raffi Krikorian often considers.
"One of the things that I do think about a lot when it comes to automation in general is that this takes away jobs from other people," the former VP of engineering at Twitter said in front of a crowd of about 30 and sprinkled with founders of homegrown Pittsburgh startups, city council members, and engineers last night. "That's one ethical question I sort of struggle with and think about a lot."
But having given it a great deal of thought, Krikorian said he is optimistic about the fate of the Uber driver should fully autonomous vehicles became commercially viable.
"I'm not worried about taking away jobs," he said. "I think, one, it hasn't played out in history that way at all. If we were to figure out a way to automate our way out of everything we would just figure out other things we would do with our time and be productive in that way. I can think of other technologies. We haven't solved education — that could be the next thing we focus on. There's a whole slew of ethics around automation in general. I think about all of these broadly, just to make sure I'm fine with the day-to-day work I'm doing."