Yesterday, drivers for Uber and Lyft won two partial victories in California as they seek to define their status as employees rather than independent contractors to confer benefits from minimum wage to the right to keep tips from customers. As PC World reports, in two separate cases decided Wednesday, judges ruled on motions for summary judgment, failing to dismiss the cases as Lyft and Uber urged them to do.
For about the millionth time, Uber argued that it's actually just a technology company, and that its drivers are independent contractors because of that. However, that logic, wrote Judge Edward Chen of the federal district court in San Francisco, is “fatally flawed in numerous respects." To him, it's clear "that Uber is most certainly a transportation company, albeit a technologically sophisticated one." In the case of Lyft, Judge Vince Chhabria wrote, “at first glance, Lyft drivers don’t seem much like employees... [but] don’t seem much like independent contractors either.” Accordingly, each case will see trial by jury.
But meanwhile, one graduate student at California College of the Arts, Alida Draudt, is challenging drivers and riders to look a decade or more down the road. As Uber partners with Carnegie Mellon University to develop autonomous technologies, Google develops its own car in a shortened timespan, and Apple investors encourage the company to buy Tesla, self-driving taxis from technology giants are likely coming down the pipe, perhaps at break-neck speed.
"It's here, essentially," Draudt told SFist, "and we wanted to hear what people might say to this new infiltration of robotic cars." Her program, an interdisciplinary set of studies called a design MBA in Strategic Foresight, seeks to imagine, and of course design for, a not too distant future where such shifts have taken place.
For her part, Draudt and her teammate Ryan Hogan designed and hung flyers of the missing cat variety in order to gather responses from ride-hailing customers and contractors. "ROBOTS (they just might take your job)" they read. The related website is here. "What we found is people are more towards the acceptance end of the spectrum as opposed to disillusionment," Draudt said. "A lot of Lyft drivers in particular will say it's 30 years out or won't happen before I retire." Draudt phrases her project as an "intervention," a fairly loaded term she uses because, as she explains, "If you think about a drug intervention, its to get someone to notice something they didn't notice and to change their behavior. The same applies here: It's a way to show people that something is happening, perhaps changing the course of their life. The signs are kind of a first step."
But Draudt doesn't necessarily predict an end to the usefulness of humans in the ride-hailing business. "If there are self-driving cars, there's still space within them for entrepreneurs," she suggests, laying out possibilities for everything from roaming salespeople to bartenders in future autonomous cars.
While we wait for their arrival, the fight for the employee status of ride-hailing drivers is still a huge concern. And, further, it could play into the autonomous car future. If, or more accurately when, a driver's ride at Uber or Lyft comes to an end and an algorithm takes the wheel, who will be entitled to benefits, like severance or retirement? Who will be first in line for new positions in that landscape? Unfortunately, it's hindsight, not foresight, that's 20/20.