Imagine self-driving cars cruising around the suburbs, picking people up, and shuttling them into cities. And imagine paying a set, affordable price each month to get nearly door-to-door service.
That's the future envisioned by Uber head of North America Rachel Holt. At the Fast Company Innovation Festival in New York City on Wednesday, Holt talked about what the on-demand economy might look like in the not-too-distant future--and it's both Jetsons-esque and extremely practical.
Uber launched its self-driving car program in Pittsburgh in August. The vehicles aren't quite autonomous--a driver sits in the front seat to take control should anything go wrong--but the company is refining its technology and looking to roll it out in other cities. Competitors such as Google, which is testing self-driving vehicles in Phoenix, and Tesla, which says it will have fully autonomous vehicles by 2017 and will develop an on-demand program, are charging forward as well. So is much of the auto industry.
Holt wouldn't predict when self-driving cars will become mainstream, or whether drivers--and thus their jobs--will be completely eliminated. Instead, she focused on the main benefit: safety.
"As we get more autonomous vehicles on the roads, you'll see accidents and deaths reduce drastically," Holt said. "And as the technology gets better, you'll see cities clamoring to get it."
Uber also has a road map for luring in commuters. The company launched a subscription service called Uber Pass in six test markets--Miami, Boston, San Francisco, San Diego, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.--in August. Customers pay a flat rate each month, like $30 for 40 trips, and then a set, discounted cost for each ride. In San Francisco, for example, an UberX ride costs $7 within the designated limits and an UberPool ride runs $2.
As Holt points out, the service will remove uncertainty about price, letting customers compare prices to the cost of, say, a subway pass and decide whether traveling by car is worth it. If the service gains popularity, don't be surprised to see it roll out in more cities across the U.S.--and for competitors to follow suit. Elon Musk has already promised groovy-looking self-driving Tesla buses that would let people hop on and off, presumably at an affordable price since they would service a handful of riders at once.
And don't expect these innovations to be limited to metro areas. As the technology becomes more common, it's inevitable that it will bleed beyond city limits, bringing public transportation to suburbs at levels that haven't existed before.
"Eventually," Holt said, "it's going to be as easy to get around outer boroughs as it is to get around cities."