Taking Back the Wheel

Taking Back the Wheel

In the future heralded by Silicon Valley, cars will fly and labor will be disposable. But none of this is inevitable. It’s a political choice—that we can still reject.

Rendering of an UberAIR terminal (Pickard Chilton / Arup for Uber)

On February 6, 2018, SpaceX launched its Falcon Heavy rocket into space to much fanfare. Never one to misjudge the importance of well-timed publicity, SpaceX founder Elon Musk attached his cherry-red Tesla Roadster to the rocket and shot it into orbit. Images of the car, manned by an intrepid space-exploring mannequin dubbed Starman, were beamed around the world to delighted audiences.

There was undoubtedly something fantastic about the image of the faux-astronaut behind the wheel of a convertible car destined for the stars. In one fell swoop Musk tantalized us with two of our deepest futuristic desires: the colonization of Mars and flying cars. Soon, Starman hinted, we’ll all be able to shuttle ourselves to other planets.

It barely mattered that neither of those achievements seem practically imminent. Musk’s Tesla was still just a standard earthbound car attached to a giant rocket, and colonizing Mars remains the realm of Hollywood blockbusters. Back on earth, progress is a little slower.

Flying cars, however, are certainly on the agenda. Daily reports inform us that Toyota, Google, Airbus, and Uber are all investing in them, along with a bevy of newer companies. Uber has published a white paper, Uber Elevate, outlining a future of “on-demand urban air transportation.” The goal is to ferry customers high above the chaos of the gridlocked, pollution-saturated, earthbound commute. “What if you could save nearly four hours round-trip between São Paulo’s city center and the suburbs in Campinas?” Uber asks.

The pitch isn’t exactly original. The notoriously congested São Paulo is well known for the number of helicopters that ferry the rich from suburb to conference room. An Airbus-owned Silicon Valley incubator, Voom, already has an app for hailing helicopters in Brazil’s industrial capital. Uber’s proposed improvement on this model—replacing the noisy, polluting, expensive, and inefficient helicopter with a drone hybrid—doesn’t exactly conjure the Jetsons future that most of us associate with the words “flying car.”

But Uber’s pitch is worth paying attention to, because it tells us where the company—and, perhaps, its innumerable would-be imitators—are going. And that means it’s not just about how we might get around in the future, but how labor and the economy are organized today. Uber’s flying cars are just one part of a far-reaching business model that, at its most ambitious, aims to jump-start a sputtering capitalism.

Our research shows that the idea of flying cars does three related things. First, it provides a place to invest surplus capital. Second, it functions to exploit and discipline surplus labor. Third, it provides a broken economic system with a technocratic and ideological fix. And ultimately, that means that the main purpose that flying cars serve is not just technological or even economic—it’s political.

 

To understand the scope of Uber’s sales pitch, and what it means for politics today, we have to come back down a little closer to earth.

Uber is one of the world’s most valuable private companies. Despite its recent trials and tribulations, it remains a poster child for a new generation of Silicon Valley start-ups. In 2010 the company was valued at $5 million. In February, at its latest valuation, Uber was valued at $72 billion. A wide range of investors, including Goldman Sachs, Google Ventures, Sequoia Capital, Fidelity Investments, Qatar Investment Authority, Microsoft, and the Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund have fueled this astronomical growth. What exactly are these investors buying into?

Uber’s business model appears to be based on three stages. First, Uber will monopolize cities’ ride-sharing market through an expensive battle to eliminate competitors and change cities’ regulations, allowing its business model to flourish. Second, it can begin to raise prices for consumers based on its market dominance. Third, it can invest the resulting profits in autonomous and flying vehicles, thus promising investors a ground-floor buy-in to the future of transportation. This vision has proved irresistible to many investors.

Uber’s rise in the wake of the global financial crisis is not coincidental. Ride-sharing companies and other start-ups provide at least a short-term solution to broader problems of capital accumulation presented by the financial system’s collapse. Expansion into new spaces—both physical and digital—is a way to offload accumulated capital and to create fresh opportunities for bigger and faster returns. This is what radical geographers might call a “digital spatial fix.” However we call it—the gig economy, the sharing economy, platform capitalism, or the surveillance economy—the aim is clear: the proliferation of new on-demand services circumvents barriers to accumulation in the form of unused private cars, spare rooms, lawnmowers, regulations, data, and the ultimate barrier, free personal time. These companies allow the market to colonize new spaces and monetize our lives in new ways. To combine the language of Marx and Apple, capital cannot abide a barrier; luckily, there’s an app for that.

Investors are gambling on riding this wave of digital accumulation and are swelling Uber’s coffers. And it is a gamble. Uber made a loss of $4.5 billion in 2017. In January 2018 it sold 15 percent of its shares to Japanese tech giant Softbank, at a price reportedly 30 percent lower than its $72 billion valuation, and probably much closer to $48 billion. Uber remains a private company and it is difficult to get exact numbers regarding its operations and finances. However, even the selective numbers Uber releases has given rise to increasing skepticism about its ability to turn a profit despite high revenue. The company spends much more than it makes, and it is difficult to see where it can make up the shortfall while pleasing consumers, shareholders, and drivers.

So far, enough investors have looked past Uber’s financial losses and eroding market share to keep the company growing. Those investors may look back fondly on the 2010s as a transformative decade, when capitalism ushered in extensive automation and a peer-to-peer economy. On the other hand, we may look back and marvel at an era of Juicero capitalism, where investors, desperate for increasing returns on their capital, threw money at every purported “disruptive” technology in hopes of owning a significant stake of the future.

Which will it be? For most of us, the answer lies firmly in the realm of speculation. Moving it into the realm of politics, where it belongs, means first of all understanding how these technologies function in the present. This brings us to Uber’s second major innovation: disciplining labor.

 

The future of work is no work

Uber argues that its biggest boon to “driver partners” is to present them with independence, flexibility, and more-than-competitive compensation. In this argument the on-demand economy ushers in a bright new future and an ostensibly new labor category: the flexible worker. In a twist on Marx’s utopian dream, such a worker can, Frank Pasquale pithily comments, “knit Etsy scarves in the morning, drive Uber cars in the afternoon, and write Facebook comments at night, flexibly shifting between jobs and leisure at will.”

Of course, the neoliberal utopia of a sharing economy operated by highly contingent workers has been shaken by a multitude of analyses telling a markedly different story. These studies, including ours, emphasize precarity, surveillance, control, low earnings, and insecure conditions. If the Uber model is the future of work, they tell us, that future looks bleak.

Behind all these debates lurks a deeper premise: that the future of work is actually no work at all. A rising tide of studies and popular books warns of labor’s inevitable demise and the “rise of the robots.” Much of this is speculation—some wild, some more reserved. But when it comes to Uber, the future of work is not hard to guess.

Uber has never made a secret of its driverless endgame. Former CEO Travis Kalanick has described the venture as part of a plan to eliminate traffic, road fatalities, and billions of wasted hours. Drivers, meanwhile, are subject to planned obsolescence. They remain necessary for the foreseeable future, but for how long? Kalanick was understandably reluctant to set a date. He told Business Insider, “I wish I had an answer for you on that one, but I don’t. What I know is that I can’t be wrong. Right?”

More important than the deadline are the broader questions that Uber’s vision raises. How do we make sense of these rapid and innovative changes to transportation and how our cities work? Who will control these new systems? What happens to mass public transit? And what happens to millions of drivers who are projected to find themselves out of a job?

Lawmakers in the United States have begun to loosely decide the answers, largely by taking their hands off the wheel. Automated cars have been testing on public roads since 2010, and in September 2016 an Uber-Volvo partnership trial began picking up customers in Pittsburgh in driverless cars. Yet it was another year before they encountered any federal regulation. On September 6, 2017 the House of Representatives passed the Safely Ensuring Lives Future Deployment and Research in Vehicle Evolution, or SELF DRIVE Act. The “first-of-its-kind” bill paves the way for automakers to add hundreds of thousands of self-driving cars to America’s roads in the next few years with limited oversight. If the bill passes through the Senate it will allow testing of autonomous technologies with minimal interference from state regulators. Currently, such tests can only be carried out with an exemption from the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) federal motor vehicles safety standards. The NHTSA only grants 2,500 of these a year; the SELF DRIVE Act would increases that cap to 25,000 annually, rising to 100,000 in three years.

Members of the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets (Ford, Volvo, Uber, Lyft, and Waymo) praised the House for enacting “autonomous vehicle legislation that enhances safety, creates new mobility opportunities, and facilitates innovation.” They hail the bill as a major step toward realizing the dream of making autonomous vehicles ubiquitous on our streets and highways.

Bill or no bill, driverless testing is already proceeding rapidly in some states. Arizona, with its “business friendly and low regulatory environment,” in the words of Governor Doug Ducey, combined with wide roads and ideal weather, has been especially hospitable to such experiments. On March 1, Ducey signed an executive order allowing companies to operate fully driverless vehicles. Just over two weeks later, a self-driving Volvo operated by Uber hit and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona. In response, Uber has pulled its self-driving cars off the streets in Phoenix, San Francisco, Toronto, and Pittsburgh.

What effect this tragedy will have on the self-driving juggernaut remains to be seen. Imposing more government oversight, as many have proposed, may be difficult given Uber’s robust record of riding roughshod over regulation in pursuit of “frictionless” transit.

 

Uberworld

Perhaps the self-driving car is simply too important to hold back. It does, after all, represent a significant component of the future Silicon Valley led capitalism has promised us: a perfect unity of hardware and software that will deliver automated, atomized, efficient, reliable, and data-driven transportation to the consumer. State and federal lawmakers may loathe presenting themselves as standing in the way of such innovation and progress. As the Economist trumpeted, “whether Uber itself wins or loses, we are all on the road to Uberworld.”

But where exactly is Uberworld and what does it look like? Should we really allow ourselves to be driven there, eyes shut and hands off the wheel? While Uber was quick to suspend driverless testing in several cities to deflect criticism after the Arizona crash, its defenders are quick to point out that the fatality rates for self-driving cars so far pale in comparison to those from conventional driving, which killed an average of more than 100 people a day in 2017. They have a point: the promise of potentially life- and labor-saving technology is nothing to scoff at.

Uber’s labor record thus far, however, gives good reason to be skeptical, as its current workforce knows all too well. When self-driving Ubers hit the streets of Pittsburgh Uber drivers reacted despondently. One told The Guardian “it feels like we’re just rentals. . . placeholders until the technology comes out.” Some piled into online driver forums like Uberpeople.net where they discussed sabotaging the automatons, like twenty-first century luddites. Others had seen the writing on the wall, though they were surprised to see themselves made obsolete so soon.

Not all drivers are immobilized by reports of their demise. For the time being, drivers are fundamental to Uber’s bottom line, and they will remain so for the foreseeable future. In fact, Uber’s attempts to cut its losses last year centered on reducing drivers’ compensation by an estimated $2.2 billion. This is where the real battle takes place: in the realms of drivers’ pay, regulation, and labor protection. Lawmakers, for example, can designate drivers as independent contractors and externalize the costs of business onto drivers. Or, they can classify them as employees of Uber with all the attendant rights. The differences in interpretation are significant and drivers have meaningful power when they choose to exercise it. In November 2017 unionized drivers in London defeated Uber’s appeal of a previous ruling that designated drivers as employees, entitled to holiday pay, paid rest breaks, and the minimum wage. Such decisions rest on drivers’ ability to organize and demand labor rights.

It is in this struggle that technology truly goes to work, shaping both the present and the future. Technology has not yet replaced drivers. It has in some circumstances made them easier to control, monitor, exploit, and alienate from each other. Meanwhile their apparently imminent obsolescence supports a broader narrative regarding the actual value and even short-term viability of their labor. If the future of work is no work, why worry about securing labor rights? Who needs security in a disappearing industry? Why fuss about unionizing the engine room while the Titanic sinks?

 

The technocratic fix

According to The Atlantic, the triumph of automated cars in 2070 will bookend a trajectory of civilizational development beginning with the invention of the wheel in Mesopotamia, and taking in Da Vinci, Daimler-Benz, Ford, Eisenhower’s Interstate System, Mapquest, and the Prius. In this reading automation represents a big leap forward for humanity. It also marks a huge business opportunity. Intel estimated this breakthrough will create a “passenger economy” valued at $7 trillion. It all sounds very plausible, reassuring, and inevitable.

The true value of automated and flying cars, however, is not monetary but ideological. In the context of financial crisis, a never-ending ubiquitous war, a looming climate catastrophe, decaying infrastructure, and a paralyzed political system, flying cars—and the prophets who tout them—are a salve for our collective consciousness.

Our problems may be big but we are soothingly reassured that the solutions are at hand. These solutions are technological and, we are encouraged to believe, transcend politics. The constant media transmission of Elon Musk’s visions of the future is a case in point. Musk will build the power system to save us from climate change, revolutionize both public and private transportation, and save us from the perils of artificial intelligence. Failing all that, he has the means to take us to Mars and beyond once this planet is no longer habitable. In the short term he can allegedly solve other problems at will, like fixing Puerto Rico’s power grid. Silicon Valley’s CEOs can meet all our needs, once sufficiently empowered.

Such declarations are decidedly political. Technological determinism emanating from Silicon Valley helps bolster neoliberal capitalism’s validity in a period of great uncertainty and unrest. Questions about capital’s progress over the past decades have begun unraveling the narrative at the core of capitalism’s legitimacy. Even thinkers on the right, such as Tyler Cowen, argue we are experiencing the Great Stagnation, brought on by a lack of innovation, productive investment, and a focus on “low-hanging fruit.”

On the left, scholars like David Graeber and Peter Frase contend that neoliberal capitalism may actually be holding back real productive technological development, like mass 3D printing and fully automated factories, in the name of profit. Instead of giving us real technological change that present alternative futures, Graeber argues that neoliberal capitalism has given us technologies that further social control and discipline labor. Why change a system that has created historic levels of wealth accumulation and concentration? Is automation even necessary when capital has a global supply of cheap human labor at its fingertips?

Flying cars are on the ideological front lines. They convince people that progress is proceeding at a rapid pace and that no other economic system could possibly achieve it. If a fully automated capitalist future, eased into transition by Universal Basic Income, is the carrot, then stagnating wages, precarity, surveillance, and the vagaries of life as a “just in time” worker are the stick.

The mass deployment of driverless cars is likely to be measured in decades, not years. New or “disruptive” technologies like Uber are framed as a veritable Pandora’s box. Once opened it cannot be shut and it plays itself out according to its own internal technological logic. We should resist this logic of inevitability and see platform capitalism for what it is: a means to mobilize a reserve labor army, overcome barriers to accumulation, and fight declining rates of profit. We are not yet on the road to Uberworld. There’s still time for us to wrest back control, not just of the future, but also of the present.


Declan Cullen is a visiting professor in the Department of Geography at the George Washington University.

Kafui Attoh is an Assistant Professor of Urban Studies at the The Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies, CUNY.

Kathryn Wells is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor.

For more on the study upon this was based see here and here.


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