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October 26, 2016: Otto

Published onOct 26, 2016
October 26, 2016: Otto

Some news: Otto, the self-driving trunk company owned by Uber, made its first automated delivery (in my home state, no less) yesterday. Of course the first delivery was beer, because you can be sure someone in Uber’s PR department got wind of this stunt long ago and made sure to capitalize on it with a delivery sure to generate social media-friendly headlines.

There were two odd things about the delivery, and the way the press covered it. First, it’s odd that despite the news representing a towering effort of achievement and a culmination of the last 100 years of human innovation, the actual facts of the delivery were, by 2016 standards, pretty dull. A truck driver pulled onto the highway, flipped a switch, and then sat back for several miles as a truck drove itself. It’s something that every Tesla owner is already doing on a regular basis (although as Wired makes plain, Tesla’s technology isn’t technically full “Level 4” automation), and compared to non-highway self-driving efforts like Google’s and Uber’s own trial in Pittsburgh, it doesn’t feel particularly special.

And yet, as the Wired article makes plain, automating trucking will have a much larger impact on the country, at least in the short term, than automating other kinds of driving. The trucking industry is facing a huge driver shortfall because, put bluntly, the job of sitting in a tiny cab directing a truck on mostly a straight line is miserable. No one will be harmed by automating this job, because no one really wants to do it.

Or that’s what we’re lead to believe. And that brings me to the second odd thing about the news. The view of economics presented in the Wired article is completely insane.

First, as if ripped from the mouth of the same PR person who came up with the beer stunt, the article claims, without a moment’s reflection: “Don’t worry. Otto, which Uber bought last summer for roughly $680 million, doesn’t want to put Martin or anyone else out of work.”

A mere four paragraphs later, the article describes changes to trucking that would have a giant effect on the jobs of millions of people: “[Otto cofounder Lior Ron] sees a day when trucks do their thing on the interstate, then stop at designated depots where humans drive the last few miles into town. Drivers, in effect, become harbor pilots, bringing the ship to port.”

Think about that for a moment. The trucking industry employees 8.7 million people, 3.5 million of whom are drivers. That doesn’t take into account the trucking infrastructure — rest stops, restaurants, motels, etc. — designed to serve the needs of human drivers. If trucking becomes a local industry, where all humans do is drive the last few miles, it’s going to put millions of people out of work.

The Wired article is particularly egregious for its parroting of a corporate line. But not one article I can find about the delivery mentions this. The tech press is completely incapable of considering the economics of the inventions it covers.

By Gabriel Stein on October 27, 2016.

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Exported from Medium on October 22, 2020.


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