Uber under fire for emissions as we have to ask; can we afford robot cars?

News that ride-hailing service Uber has seen its licence to operate in London revoked came filed under ‘hardly surprising.’ Transport for London (TfL) has long had a tempestuous relationship with the ride-hailing service, and with reports of Uber’s poor performance when it comes to security and safety, the removal of its licence has been long heralded.

In London, Uber will almost certainly continue to operate for some time yet — it will appeal TfL’s decision, and will be able to keep going in London under that appeal. Elsewhere, though, the company is coming under increasing fire for — apparently — driving up vehicle emissions in the cities where it operates.


Pollution threat


One of the great criticisms of ride-hailing and ride-sharing in general is that such services draw people away from using public transport or other, more eco-friendly, methods of transport and puts them into cars. This has the potential to trigger not only higher levels of traffic (and therefore congestion) but also increased local air pollution and emissions.

According to a new report by environmental think-tank Transport & Environment (T&E), the arrival of Uber in cities such as Paris and London has seen numbers of registered taxis almost double. In London, the number of journeys by taxi or hackney has increased by a quarter since Uber started operating there.

T&E’s analysis estimates that in London and Paris alone, the emissions of Uber taxi services could be as high as half a megatonne of CO2 - 515 kilotonnes of CO2. This is equivalent to adding the CO2 emissions of an extra 250,000 privately owned cars to the road. 


Fuel type fuels Uber fear


These kilometres have predominantly been driven by petrol and diesel cars, exacerbating the air pollution crisis in European cities. Worryingly, French government data from 2017 show that 90 per cent of the registered private hire vehicles, which includes Uber, were diesel cars. The high share of diesels in the Private Hire Vehicle (PHV) fleet can be also found in the traditional taxi market. It’s thought that other European cities where Uber operates have similar levels of diesels in their fleet. 

Yoann Le Petit, new mobility expert with T&E, told The Irish Times: “Uber’s CEO tells us they ‘do the right thing, period.’ But the reality is that Uber is part of the traffic and pollution problem, adding car trips in our cities and adding to the climate and pollution crisis. If it wants to become part of the solution Uber needs to stop using petrol and diesel cars and rapidly shift to 100% electric rides. That’s the right thing to do, full stop.”


Need for EV's & Autonomous Vehicles


While many will point to the rise of electric and, eventually, autonomous vehicles in Uber’s fleet as a cure for such ills, the company is coming under closer scrutiny in these fields too. This week, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) — America’s equivalent of the RSA — issued its report on the fatal crash that saw a prototype autonomous Uber test car mow down a female cyclist in Arizona. The report detailed ‘a litany of failings’ on Uber’s part when it came to the crash, including faulty software, and the fact that the vehicle’s human supervisor was distracted by her phone.

“The inappropriate actions of both the automatic driving system as implemented and the vehicle’s human operator were symptoms of a deeper problem, the ineffective safety culture that existed at the time” said the NTSB.

The debate about Uber and the potential issues that it and similar services raise in terms of pollution and safety also raise the head, once again, of the autonomous car’s impact on employment.


Employment impact, not just Uber 


One persistent criticism of Uber is that it treats its ‘employees’ (the company would prefer to call them independent contractors, but it’s really a zero-hours employment strategy) pretty shabbily. That’s not necessarily the situation in Ireland, where Uber has to operate under normal taxi and hackney hire rules, but certainly globally there have been major criticisms of Uber’s record as an employer. The company’s solution? Replace all those troublesome human employees with robots, hence the testing of autonomous cars.

The impact on employment numbers is obvious, and Uber is not the only potential Ground Zero for autonomous car job losses. The transport industry represents around 4.5 per cent of the total employment figures of the European Union, and of that more than one quarter are employed in road transport and haulage. That’s millions of jobs on the line, and a new report, published by the International Transport Forum  (ITF) has suggested that 50-70 per cent of those jobs could be gone by 2030. The report was prepared jointly by the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (ACEA), the International Transport Workers’ Federation and the International Road Transport Union (IRU), the road transport’s industry’s global body, in a project led by the International Transport Forum, a Paris-based intergovernmental organisation linked to the OECD.

José Viegas, Secretary-General of the ITF said that “driverless trucks could be a regular presence on many roads within the next ten years. Self‑driving trucks already operate in controlled environments like ports or mines. Trials on public roads are under way in many regions including the United States and the European Union. Manufacturers are investing heavily into automation, and many governments are actively reviewing their regulations. Preparing now for potential negative social impact of job losses will mitigate the risks in case a rapid transition occurs.”


The Autonomous revolution


The car industry itself is also going through an unemployment spasm, as car makers seek to retrench financially in order to make the investments needed for the autonomous and electric car leap. BMW, Mercedes, Audi, Ford, General Motors and more have all announced huge corporate restructurings and job losses to achieve that, and Ireland has not been immune — people have already been laid off here as part of these programmes and more job losses are coming.

The thing is, it might not even be worth the effort. A recent report by tech website The Information found that General Motors (which recently went through its own employee cull so that it could free up cash to invest in new tech) has decided to delay the introduction of its ‘Cruise’ autonomous taxi service, because the cars aren’t safe enough. The test cars were having what was called a ‘critical safety event’ (one where the human supervisor has to — rapidly — take control to avoid an accident) every 600km or thereabouts. That’s pretty poor, even compared to fallible humans.


Autonomous cars are not a given.


They are not even, strictly, necessary. The supposed benefits of autonomous cars can be, potentially, better and more easily achieved by other means. Better driver training would reduce accident levels, as would increasing levels of vehicle safety (and it’s worth pointing out that far too many autonomous car prophets take a cavalier ‘can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs’ attitude to how many lives might be lost in the transition to an autonomous future). More investment in electric vehicles will see the Co2 levels improve, and above all, the idea of a form of cheaply-available transport that you don’t have to drive and which brings you to your destination already exists — it’s called a bus, and while it’s not perfect, it’s arguably a better solution than saturating the roads with lots of autonomous pods all trying to cram into town at peak times.

Let’s just all, carefully for once, ask ourselves if an autonomous vehicle revolution is truly what we want.