Why I welcome robot Uber cars in Dubai

Uber robot car
A test robot car from Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center in Pittsburgh. Image courtesy Uber

As I put my shoes on, the phone beeps: my Uber is here. Perfect timing, I think. I check my wallet and keys then head out the door. As I strap myself into my seat, Louis Armstrong’s gravelly tones waft across the car stereo: it’s a wonderful world as the BMW makes its way down to the office. It’s not my usual route, but an alert on my smartphone tells me there’s been another accident on Al Wasl Road.

These humans! I disembark at work, still on a high and get to my desk still in my peaceful morning bubble. That’s the dream at least – but if the car lift service has its way, I won’t need to argue with a Dubai taxi driver any more.

Uber begins trialling self-driving cars this month. Its aggressive CEO Travis Kalanick hopes the move will lead to the eventual replacement of its one million drivers, Bloomberg Businessweek reports.

Uber trials robots this month

If you’re in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, this month, you might be able to snag a ride in the new, human-supervised Volvo cars, beating Google, Tesla and Ford to second place in the autonomous driving grand prix.

I’m ecstatic. With its penchant for adapting technology as quickly as it’s announced, Dubai could very well be one of the first places where Uber rolls out the service. After all, the emirate’s Roads and Transport Authority, which controls taxi services, has announced the use of autonomous vehicles for Expo 2020, the upcoming world’s fair in the UAE.

When contacted, Uber reps in the UAE couldn’t offer a timeline for a local roll-out.

Nevertheless, when it does happen (it’s a when, not an if), I will be among those rolling out the red carpet. As a pacifist who doesn’t drive (on principle, but that’s another column – in fact, a whole series of them), I take taxis (and, since 2009, Dubai Metro) everywhere. So I’m constantly dealing with crabby, snarky, know-it-all taxi drivers – one every two days if I hazard a guess. The RTA has taken several steps to improve service over the past couple of years, as Gulf News has reported, and although I’ve felt the difference, the situation continues to induce anxiety. When getting into a taxi, I never know just how erratic the driver is going to be.

No humans, please

I’ve got into arguments and come to blows – as well as having had the occasional accident – because drivers were talking on their phones, or texting, or making a video call, or driving the wrong way, or refusing to take directions, or reading the Quran (from a book), or… I could go on. It’s enough to make one want to drive!

But then, along came Uber and Careem, and even RTA drivers are nicer now. Uber’s rating system has had a knock-on effect: Limousine and taxi drivers in the shiny emirate have had an attitudinal adjustment, but unfortunately the knobs weren’t turned far enough in many cases. They still arrive later than expected (“Traffic, saar!”), stop several metres away (“Why you put pin in wrong place?”), check their phones while driving (“My friend needs car”), take routes that customers don’t want them to (“No signals this way”), and generally believe they’re kings of the road (“[expletive deleted]”).

Not using my money, they won’t be for much longer.

Uber support, on the other hand, can’t be more helpful. Responses to queries have been quick and efficient, and erroneous charges refunded.

But it’s the human element – here and elsewhere (in New Haven, Connecticut, a driver cooked my ear about how she wasn’t getting a gratuity, I gave her $5 [Dh18] to shut her up) – that falls foul of brand delivery, and I daresay, kills the experience. The brand relies so much on local suppliers, as is the classic case with franchises, and training only goes so far.

So by taking away the human function, Uber’s doing a lot right. Nearly 1.3 million people are killed in road accidents each year, and 94 per cent of those deaths are attributable to human error.

I suspect I won’t be the only one prepared to pay a premium for a robot ride.