Walsh’s Wonderings — Uber watching

Robert F. Walsh

A watched pot never boils. Nowhere is this clearer than in our feverish quest for driverless car technology. Worse, each breakthrough or government approval seems to force tech fanboys like me to make moral concessions as the major players emerge.

Ridesharing service Uber, for example, has become a clear leader in this field. Their Trojan horse was the simple premise that few of us have friends we can trust enough to arrive on time for that 6 a.m. drive to the airport — or stay sober enough to take us home after the bachelor party. Cheaper and more widely available than taxis in some areas, ridesharing services help hide this embarrassing reality with a few clicks in their phone app.

They kicked it up a notch by offering Uber Eats, transporting your order from a variety of local restaurants (for a fee) that wouldn’t otherwise offer delivery. It’s almost as if you had a friend who was offering to get you that gyro from the creepy place on the other side of town but wouldn’t ask for some of your fries after he arrived. How long until Uber offers a service to help you move your stuff to your new apartment? (Soon. Please. Soon.)

In the real world, though, we know these friends are hard to find without having to put up with some issues. Maybe they’re loud, or they keep leering at your sister when they’re helping you change the brake fluid, or they keep talking when you’re trying to watch Better Call Saul. In Uber’s case, fans of this technology have to reconcile allegations of a culture of unchecked sexual harassment at their San Francisco headquarters or the controversy over their sidestepping of government regulations.

I’m not sure how I feel about the business model itself; I’ve had friends who drove taxis and fear this new model will price them out of the market. In fact, the Connecticut Senate approved legislation last week that would require ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft to pay a $50,000 registration fee to the state while setting price limits. However, Uber also just added McDonald’s to the roster of restaurants from which they’ll deliver. Not only am I a lousy friend, but I love me some McDonald’s. As long as they try to fix things and don’t ask my sister out, I’m willing to forgive a lot if I don’t have to get in my car for a McMuffin.

Sure, Waymo (Google’s driverless car unit) sued Uber in February for stealing its technology through its hiring of a former Google executive, but Uber denies it was anything important. And on Tuesday of this week, following recommendations from former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s investigation into Uber’s office culture, Uber CEO and founder Travis Kalanick stepped down. In short, people realized it was time for someone else to take the wheel.

Of course, their company name says it all. The Cambridge dictionary suggests that “uber” is used before nouns to mean “extremely good or successful.” Being that cocky rarely ends well, but I’m keeping hope alive that the company continues to push the technology forward without running itself off the road. At this point, I’m holding out for Chips pancake delivery.

You can read more at RobertFWalsh.com, contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @RobertFWalsh.

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