And many more strikes to come
On Wednesday this week, May 8, a US strike by Uber and Lyft drivers drew considerable attention. This was far from the first driver strike for the ride-sharing companies, but it was the most widespread to date, and it’s timing eye-catching. On Friday, Uber is expected to move forward with one of the largest IPOs in recent years, raising close to $100 billion from investors, while earlier this week Lyft issued its first financial results since its own March IPO.
Expect many more. Strikes, not IPOs.
The driver protests are timed to draw attention to pay and work conditions at a time when the companies are hoping to focus on their attraction to investors. How followed and how effective this driver strike was varied widely, and specific demands also varied from city to city. In many cities service disruption was minimal at most. Drivers generally are seeking higher wages (which New York drivers successfully got last year), and more regulation – particularly caps on the numbers of drivers in given markets. A study by the Economic Policy Institute last year estimated the net hourly pay for ride-share drivers at $9.21 an hour. Lyft and Uber drivers in the US are classified as independent contractors (1099 workers), not employees, meaning they are ineligible for benefits, including paid time off.
Neither company has paid that much attention to driver pressure, unless backed by regulations. The strike this week is targeting legislators and city officials more than corporate leaders. Still, neither company has yet found a route to profitability – Lyft’s just-issued financial results note widening losses – and would be uncomfortable with concerted disruption to its product. Uber’s IPO documentation includes the statement
“Driver dissatisfaction has in the past resulted in protests by Drivers… Such protests have resulted, and any future protests may result, in interruptions to our business.”
Today the ride-share companies are trying to find a balance between the financial pressures to cut costs and increase margins, and the desire to avoid too-great disruptions to service from drivers. That search for balance has an end date. As noted before by Infrastructure Ideas (“News from the Revolution”), the future of automotive ride-sharing is very different than the present: it includes few, if any human drivers. The future of ride-sharing is one of almost entirely AVs, or Automated Vehicles. With the rapidly decreasing costs of AVs (which in turn will consist largely of Electric Vehicles, or EVs), within a decade (or two decades, or maybe 7-8 years, but “soon”) widespread availability of AVs will be a reality. Driving costs will of AVs will reach a par with the per-mile costs of human-driven vehicles, and with declining technology costs get cheaper and cheaper relative to their non-AV counterparts. This is how Uber and Lyft see their eventual arrival into the land of high profitability, as AV/EV ride-sharing companies. While timing is yet unknown, and a great many technical issues remain to be sorted out, the direction is clear, and so is the end-point. Both companies will be under tremendous pressure from their owners to take any available route to profitability, and no alternative will compare with the switch from human drivers to AVs.
The Uber and Lyft vision of the future of ride-sharing is one where investors, and consumers, “win.” Transport continues to get cheaper and quicker over time, and investors share the benefits of much lower costs. It also has a clear loser: human drivers. This week the objectives of ride-share drivers was getting legislators to help them earn more. Before long, their objective will become getting legislators to help them fend off the robots. That battle will be long, and a lot more desperate.
Expect plenty more strikes.