Automatic For The People

Simon Mainwaring / Economy / 10 months ago

Uber, the car sharing and delivery app that has upended the taxi business and whose logo has become ubiquitous in the windows of cars in cities around the world, has nonetheless weathered one public relations storm after another in its onward march to omnipresence. Despite the brand’s wild, multibillion-dollar success, Uber has seen everything from violent encounters between passengers and drivers, to sexual assaults and other troubling incidents, many involving the victimization of women, as it walks a fine line through the murky gray area of the “sharing economy.”

The Bay Area-based app’s latest debacle involves the U.N. pulling a proposed partnership that would have created one million jobs for women around the world. Following criticism from such entities as International Transport Federation, along with concerns over Uber’s ability to ensure the safety of female drivers, as well as a lack of basic wage protection and health care, the deal was cancelled.

But will the concern over how to properly protect and compensate drivers end up becoming academic within a few years?

Working in conjunction with Carnegie Mellon University, Uber recently launched a test fleet of driverless cars in Pittsburgh. Although the Volvo XC90 test vehicles feature a human “driver” in the passenger seat supervising the operation, Uber’s ultimate ambition is to replace the 1 million human drivers currently working with the brand with an entirely robotic fleet. Though estimates vary on how long a 100% robotic set of autos will be a viable reality – some say years, others decades – it nonetheless raises an intriguing question right out of a sci-fi paperback: How to humanize a brand comprised of machines? And like many a brand before them, Uber will no doubt continue to explicate its larger benefits to consumers: convenience, increased mobility, versatility, reducing urban congestion, among others, as it hopes to maintain its preeminent position. As Uber continues to grow as a brand, it will continue to develop its message as a partner in making urban life easier and more efficient.

A challenge for Uber is who is going to tell this story to consumers on the ground level? While there are always the usual media channels to deliver various forms of advertising, employees are literally the face of a brand and help create lasting impressions with consumers. It’s hard to imagine a programmed message from a robotic car having the same resonance as say, a spontaneous and warm interaction with a driver. But then again, perhaps consumers will appreciate the ease, efficiency and as yet other to be determined utilities of a robotic car and will miss a human driver the way we miss the milkman and other long-forgotten occupations.

Uber’s desired robotic fleet raises some other key questions for the brand, including:

  • What is their vision for the future that will inspire employees and passengers to promote the brand?
  • Will Uber have trouble maintaining a positive impression with consumers given that they’ll potentially be putting hundreds of thousands of people out of work?
  • What contribution will the company make in the cities in which it operates to build passenger goodwill, loyalty and trust?

And perhaps most vitally for Uber itself, as more driverless car service players enter the market, how will they differentiate themselves through their brand values, story and mission? Ford, BMW and other auto giants have already started test programs for their own driverless and/or on-demand auto services, so what will Uber be able to offer that makes them a compelling choice for consumers? So far, the brand has been fortunate that its been one of the first of its kind and has done a good job with that pole position to succeed, but as its litany PR issues has also demonstrated, Uber is not without scandal and the public perception fall-out from it. What happens if a series of rivals emerge that are able to bypass the growing pains of the ride-share economy and position themselves as the disruptor to Uber’s “old-guard?” For all involved, it’s an interesting road ahead.

Image via Flickr courtesy of user Paulo Valdivieso at https://flic.kr/p/oHpnei

 

 

 

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