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Robotic Ride-Shares Could Have Human Impact

Rumors abound that Google is entering into the ride-share race with its self-driving cars. Could that change the face of our cities?
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One of Google's latest self-driving car prototypes. (Photo: Google)

One of Google's latest self-driving car prototypes. (Photo: Google)

It seems the ride-share business just got a little bit more crowded ... sort of.

Bloomberg reported on Monday that Google is entering the increasingly crowded ride-sharing market, most likely with its upcoming self-driving car. (Incidentally, Uber has also been hard at work developing an autonomous car of its own.)

Beyond the increased availability of ride-share services, this elevated interest in ride-sharing—especially, if the rumors are true, in a self-driving form—has big implications for our everyday lives.

There’s been something of an ongoing debate about whether self-driving cars might have some environmentally unfortunate consequences. Namely, might the convenience of self-driving cars lead to more urban sprawl? That argument, which surfaced back in July, pertained specifically to individually owned self-driving cars; commuting made simple, some had argued, would only encourage people to live outside the city. One has to wonder if a driverless Uber—free of human time wasters like sleep, and therefore available at all hours to cart you back your home in the 'burbs—might take away from one of urban life’s biggest enticements: convenience.

On the other hand, ride-sharing has already helped Americans cut back on their driving, and, by its very nature caters to city dwellers. It’s a decidedly gloomy view to worry that a fleet of self-driving Ubers could just reverse a clear national trend toward urbanization. And maybe autonomous cars could provide even more data to city planners. But this potential for urban sprawl is a good consideration for policy advocates and urban planners to bear.

Another consideration: From a workers’ standpoint, some cities’ taxi medallion services aren’t exactly known for their high-ethics ratings. Might replacing the ride-sharing human competitors with robots give those dishonest taxi services even more leeway? After all, where else will the disgruntled drivers—84 percent of whom are immigrants—have to turn?