Faced with an impending future of thousands of driverless cars ferrying passengers around San Francisco, some of the city’s Uber and Lyft drivers — threatened by presumably cheaper rides — are apathetic: They say they do not care, and are accustomed to change.
“It’s bound to happen,” said Lyft driver George who, like others in this piece, gave only a first name for fear of retaliation by Uber or Lyft. And, like others, he did not view his ride-hailing job as a permanent one. “I’m about to give it up anyway, so I don’t care what they do.”
Other drivers said they were not terribly worried about the onslaught of driverless cars, seeing change as inevitable; some had even failed to notice the California Public Utility Commission’s decision earlier this month to give Cruise and Waymo 24/7 access to the city’s streets for robo-taxi services.
The commission’s decision was news to Abdo Ali, 36, an eight-year Uber driver. He doubts driverless cars will work. “When there’s traffic, it’s not going to work that much,” he said, adding that there are always problems at the beginning of something new.
Another Uber driver, Perith, said, “I don’t care, for sure. I’ll move to another job.” Homecare is one she is thinking about.
Muhammad, 56, who also drives for Uber and was napping in the Marina during the afternoon lull, said he may pick up a couple more cashier jobs.
For some, however, the transition is much more personal.
There’s a rooftop device attached to George’s vehicle that collects data about every trip. And each month, he goes down to Mountain View to swap out the data in a box in his trunk. This is a partnership between Lyft and the automated driving technology company Woven Planet. The data is meant to accelerate automated driving technology.
“Not only will this transaction allow Lyft to focus on advancing our leading autonomous platform and transportation network, this partnership will help pull in our profitability timeline,” Lyft’s then-president, John Zimmer, said in a statement when the partnership launched in 2021.
By doing so, George can earn an additional $3 for every hour driving in San Francisco. The $200 or so he earns from the program every week has greatly reduced the burden of paying $710 every month in hotel room rent.
“They are using me to replace me. That’s what they are doing,” he said.
Flavio Jesus, a seven-year Lyft driver, carries the same devices on his vehicle to help Lyft map the city. He needs the money, badly, but the speed at which technology advances in this city makes him panic. His hands kept shaking; Where would his next job be?
“I’m in favor of progress, evolution, but … not at this moment.”
He needs time.
For their part, San Francisco cabbies have been actively protesting against the rapid expansion of robo-taxis, while Uber and Lyft drivers have been more reticent in comparison: The job is more transient, and involves mostly part-time workers, all of whom are classified as contractors. Even those who do it full-time have long complained about being exploited on the platforms, tempering their passion for the job.
On the other hand, their de facto employers, Uber and Lyft, have been aligned with a variety of autonomous vehicle companies, including Waymo, Motional, Aurora (for freight trucks), and Cartken, to ensure that they won’t be left behind when driverless vehicles do become a reality. For instance, a Uber and Waymo partnership announced in May aims at using Waymo’s autonomous driving technology in Phoenix, Arizona.
Publicly, the companies have said they don’t foresee an immediate future without their drivers. “I can’t imagine anytime in the next decade-plus where we would need any less drivers,” said then Lyft president John Zimmer in October 2022.
And drivers, it appears, are accustomed to change from above.
As a career driver in San Francisco who started as a cab driver in the 1970s, George is all too familiar with the experience of being undercut and thrown out of business. “They’re gonna undercut us. But I used to drive a cab, and Lyft and Uber undercut the cab,” he said.
For the 82-year-old man, a more imminent future is the day he flunks a vision test and goes out of business because he cannot pass a driving test.
Until then, if his profession does age faster than he does, “I could go back to the cab company. There will be cab jobs there. They will be desperate for drivers, just like they are now,” he said.
And, while driverless cars may undercut Lyft and Uber prices at first, few drivers believed that will last. “It’s not going to be cheap, like they say,” said Ali, who argued that vehicle maintenance, which is fully covered by ride-hailing drivers, will be costly for autonomous vehicle companies.
What’s his plan if no longer needed? “Maybe down south to Tennessee, Alabama or somewhere. You can start some small business.” The only problem: He’s got no savings for it.
Wilmer Zambramo, 39, a nine-year Uber driver who described the business models of Uber and Lyft as “traditional,” said he doesn’t care about the advent of driverless cars. “I’ll be gone [when these jobs disappear],” he said.
He now works about 90 hours a week to make some $2,500 so that he can someday return to Venezuela, where he has family and a business. “I’m thinking about moving out of America, maybe in a year.”