Ed Wallace

Technology Week

Automotive technology week started on May 7th with the COPD-level-breathtaking announcement that Drive.ai, a California autonomous car start-up, will be making Frisco, Texas, home to America’s first self-driving taxi service this summer. These cabs will be accessible to around 10,000 employees from the corporate offices a mere mile away from The Star, a 91-acre site that holds the Dallas Cowboys headquarters, retail shops and dining facilities.

Making things better, for six months the rides will be free. Thank the Denton County Transportation Authority, and others, who are using our tax money to empower this experiment —though officials aren’t saying how much they are putting into this little self-driving taxi venture. Dampening the excitement just a tad, these self-driving cabs have a person sitting in the driver’s seat …just in case things get a dicey on the roads. The article in the Texas Tribune also states that in the future there will be “remote assistance ready to help drive these vehicles if needed.” I feel so much more secure already.

There was a problem claiming Texas bragging rights, though. Because two days earlier Lyft and Aptiv had announced that they would be putting a fleet of 30 self-driving cars onto the Las Vegas strip this summer, the same self-driving BMW 5 Series they demonstrated successfully at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, and their start date is also July or early August of this year. The idea here is to shuttle visitors from the Las Vegas convention center to resorts out on the strip. So, Vegas gets the BMWs, we get the converted Nissan minivans, and in both cases, you guessed it, there’ll be drivers sitting inside the self-driving cars. Oh, and they’ll both be driving on limited, predetermined routes —less confusing to the computers.

But wait. Turns out there’s yet a third test of self-driving taxis scheduled this summer —sorry, Frisco and Vegas —this time in the Phoenix region, in converted Chrysler Pacifica minivans owned by Waymo, the autonomous vehicle division of Google. Here too the rides will be free, but Waymo has pointed out that the rides will be confined to a “geofenced” area; we’ll assume that’s something like the invisible fence that keeps your dog from running into the street and being hit by a self-driving taxi.

Now, picking Las Vegas makes a lot of sense for accustoming riders to these vehicles; I’m fairly certain the drinks are still free if one is gambling on the strip. If, after shedding inhibitions due to the consumption of spirits, suddenly you decide there’s something going on at the convention that’s better than the Britney Spears show at Planet Hollywood, that self-driving BMW might be perfect. But why in Phoenix? Just two months ago an Uber self-driving car there became the first in the nation to kill a pedestrian.

But hey, it’s technology week! And so, while Uber’s new CEO sent out a tweet throwing shade at Elon Musk for releasing information on a Tesla’s fatal accident in Northern California before the government finishes its official investigation, Uber then ignored its CEO’s advice: It informed the media that the fatal self-driving Uber accident outside of Phoenix likely happened because the software in the car likely spotted the woman crossing the road with her bicycle — but decided not to swerve. OK, then; I feel so much more secure in the knowledge that the future is just around the corner.

Uber also said it would not be long before the company restarts its self-driving vehicle testing. Pedestrians, that was your official warning.

As for the Tesla’s tragic accident in Northern California, the smart move is for everyone to let the National Traffic Safety Board finish its investigation before anything moves forward. That’s how we handle aircraft accidents to save future lives, and it’s a pretty good rule of thumb.

But who cares about self-driving taxis, anyhow? Nobody, because we are on the cusp of self- flying taxis, at half the rate Uber charges for its road-based taxi service. The best part is that the company offering this pie-in-the-sky pipedream is Uber.

That’s right, Uber doesn’t just want to get to self-driving taxis as quickly as possible, in order to ditch the expense of drivers — while picking up the much higher expense of owning its own national taxi fleet.

Uber Means “Over”

Uber seriously wants its flying taxis to cost less than its road-based service. How much less? More on that in just a bit.

The day after Drive.ai’s big Frisco announcement, Uber showed off its latest “flying cab” concept at the Elevate Conference in Los Angeles. Not a real flying car you can touch, of course, just another artist’s rendering of what that flying car might look like. And writers who cover technology went nuts over this one, spending loads of ink discussing the brilliance of its four stacked rotors and single tail-mounted engine for forward propulsion, while reassuring us that if one rotor fails it will somehow land safely.

Uber then went on to say that these aircraft will fly between 1,000 and 2,000 feet in the air, be battery powered, and operate from sky ports on top of high-rises, where 200 take-offs and landings can happen every hour.

Keep in mind, this aircraft doesn’t exist, nor will Uber try to build one. Instead they will farm that work out to others; Bell Helicopter and Brazil’s Embraer were mentioned in The Verge’s article. But you’ll have to read down to the last few paragraphs before reality is mentioned: An aircraft like this is going to have all sorts of issues with both engineering and regulatory approval.

That’s right. This isn’t like Uber’s street taxis, where they can bowl over local government officials or even some state officials. No; because major metro areas have so many airports and restricted airspace, among other rules and regulations, flying taxis may have a much harder time getting approved because they’ll have to deal with the FAA.

I thought of something that may throw cold water on this idea, though. If people are afraid to purchase an electric car because of a psychological condition called “range anxiety” —the fear that you’ll be far from home when your car’s battery pack discharges completely — why would anyone get into a self- flying taxi that’s, dare it be said, battery powered?

Now, the idea that this will become reality soon (remember, DFW is one of their first test areas and they claim it may happen by 2020) is like saying you don’t understand why dinosaurs aren’t roaming free again because you saw them in the movie Jurassic Park24 years ago. Really: So far, the Uber self-flying taxi is just an artist’s rendering and a computer-generated video, just like the Steven Spielberg movie. Here’s the best part: Tech Crunch claims Uber wants to get the cost of this flying taxi service down to the cost of automobile ownership per mile. The belief is that when this service launches, the cost per passenger mile will be close to $6, but will eventually fall to a mere 40 to 60 cents. At that point, you’ll be able to fly from downtown Fort Worth to downtown Dallas for a mere $22.20. Or, less than half the cost of a regular taxi ride.

Now, there are two critical questions I would have asked at that tech presentation. First, if you, Uber, can’t manage to build a self-driving car with software that both recognizes someone crossing a road and decides it’s best not to run over them, why in the world should anyone trust your company to create self-flying electric taxis they can safely use in just two years?

My second question would be more pointed: Why would an internet taxi company that lost $4.5 billion just in 2017 be working on self-driving cars or self-flying taxis, anyhow? That’s a question that every businessperson should easily understand. Because if your primary business, the one you are best known for and have the most customers using regularly, even with an incredible revenue stream is hemorrhaging money at that rate, you don’t waste a minute or a penny on other ventures. You shut down all of your auxiliary schemes, pipedreams, plans, and even other businesses to save the primary business with the largest revenue stream. That’s Corporate Business 101.

Suspended Reality

Still, it’s technology week, so reality is still officially suspended. So on to the next story: Walmart has split the sheets with Uber over its home grocery delivery service. This experiment in delivering pre-melted ice cream across America started only two years ago, and as recently as March Walmart still claimed Uber would be its partner as it rolled this program out to 40 percent of all Americans. Suddenly, it’s all over.

But just for two days. Because on May 10th, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi announced Uber would be delivering food by self-flying drones in the San Diego area, and this program has already received government approval. Here’s Uber’s promise: Order your food and it will be delivered to your doorstep in a mere five to 30 minutes.

The Reuters article goes on to say, quoting the company’s CEO, that Uber is the largest food delivery service in the world. There’s no mention whether, since Walmart broke up with Uber two days earlier, that’s still true.

Need a scorecard? Uber lost $4.5 billion with no corporate turnaround in sight; it claims its software probably saw that pedestrian in the Phoenix area, but decided not to swerve and miss her. So as a company that still isn’t anywhere close to having a functional self-driving car, it upped the ante and diverted our focus with shiny new toys— a new flying taxi that we’re all supposed to sign off on in two years. And when Walmart suddenly ended its food delivery service with Uber, one that uses humans, Uber then doubled down with a food delivery service by drone. And this company is one of the business media’s favorite corporations?

During the same week Lime bike, which was negotiating with the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, to put its all-electric push scooters on city streets, decided talk was cheap and set them out across town for consumers to use anyhow, overnight. When the city council said this isn’t how we do business here, Lime bike sent out emails to its users, who in turn flooded city hall, infuriating the elected officials even more. Not unlike what Uber has done in many cities.

This means the biggest contribution so far by these futuristic Silicon Valley mobility companies is to bring back the days of mob action in America —albeit by email.

Wile E. Coyote: Acme Calling

But then a memory flashback made me recall that, in terms of technology, sometime back in the early Sixties, a company invented and sold motorized roller skates. Not as elegant, of course, as a modern motorized child’s push scooter, such as Bird and Lime bike are pushing. Turns out the memory was right. In 1961 the Motorized Roller Skate Company of Detroit started selling its system to the public.

I even found a few photos of them. One shows a businessman with his skates on, presumably going to work, at a gas station where the attendant is filling his one-quart gas tank. That tank and the gas-powered engine were carried on one’s back, much like a backpack today, with the transmission cable running down to one of the skates.

Golly, Beaver, how did this not become the future of transportation? Was it the fact that most didn’t like the possibility of a gas station attendant spilling gasoline all over their back and new suit? Or was it that era’s cheap skates? Maybe it’s because cities didn’t create skate lanes on highways. Or maybe motorized roller skates died along with gas station attendants — and in the days of self-service most couldn’t see the gas tank on their back to fill it up.

Turns out motorized skates still exist, they’re just not quite as dumb as they were in 1961. Then again, Segways came and kind of went away, replaced by Hoverboards with no steering handles. They might be the next big thing — if they didn’t catch fire so often.

Meanwhile, new car sales are down just a little, but the public is still buying new and used vehicles for individual use in near-record numbers. The parking lot at the Walmart on 183 is still full most days as people buy groceries and haul them home the old fashioned way in their personal automobiles. The streets of America are full of delivery drivers for Pizza Hut and Domino’s. And it’s almost a given that, in the dead of winter, getting your pizza dropped on your snowy front porch by an Uber drone may not be the best dining experience you’ll have —just the most high-tech.

© Ed Wallace 2018 / Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, bestowed by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA, and hosts the top-rated talk show, Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. Email: edwallace570@gmail.com