Who will clean the puke in self-driving taxis?

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Bloomberg recently had an interesting headline: Self driving cars could have a vomit problem.

It reports that rideshare drivers – those working for companies like Lyft and Uber – are already discovering a downside of the general public that retailers and restaurateurs and hoteliers have always known. People are pigs. It makes perfect sense that the same people who use white hotel towels to wipe their muddy shoes and return used appliances in sealed boxes will treat a hired ride just as poorly. Hell, some people treat their own cars in ways that would make you shudder.

My son has worked at car dealerships and brought home horror stories of trade-ins. One day he said they simply taped off the steering assembly and part of the dash and took a power washer to the interior of the car to try to blast out the unknown spills and garbage stuck to every surface.  

But the tales of the doings and spewings of those under the watchful eye of an actual driver have given rise to a previously left out factor of the Brave New World of coming full autonomy: who will determine if that self-driving ride you just hailed arrives in good shape? Those developing the tech as well as the mechanics of our promised road nirvana are forgetting the single thing that has thrown the wrench into nearly every works in history:  human behaviour.

Testing for autonomous cars is underway all over the globe. While engineers tackle issues making sure their software can recognize that building or this traffic signal or that hydrant, consider what testers in India are running up against: people don’t just create their own road rules, they create their own vehicles, or even sort-of vehicles. According to Tata Motors (which owns Jaguar Land Rover), current software can’t figure out what fifteen per cent of the vehicles on the road in India actually are. The learning curve, it is steep.

In the spirit of who-needs-people, turn that lens to the interior. Entities – both car manufacturers and software companies – have been so intent on being first across the autonomous finish line that they’ve neglected to factor in who will do the scut work. If my kid barfs in my car, it’s easy to know who’s cleaning it up. But just as many are content to leave a trashed hotel room or dinner table in their wake, it seems many are hauling slush and greasy fingers into a hired car. And worse. Ask any cabbie for his or her worst puke story, and watch them try to choose one.

Uber has a Puke Policy, though they don’t call it that. News reports in Toronto recently were littered with Uber users finding their account hit with a $150 clean up charge; as expected, most were livid, saying they’d done nothing in their ride to merit the smack. Chatrooms for Uber drivers are filled with the tips and tricks for drivers who find themselves carting home vomiting revellers or, for some reason, people who can’t hold their pee. Take photos, they’re told, and report it immediately. There is a sliding scale that Uber will recompense depending on the grossness. I’ll admit a little pee is better than a lot of pee, but still, pee.

I know people who share, or pool, a rented ride. If it’s on your app, you pay if someone else let’s a bodily fluid rip.

This may be an individual driver’s concern at this point. But most ride share programs envision doing away with the driver eventually, with the coming full autonomy. We’ve all seen questionable behaviour on trains or subways, and I have airplane stories that would curl your hair. I just can’t imagine what would happen without witnesses. 

Wait. Yes I can.

A great deal of money and effort is pouring into the race to make autonomous cars reliable and safe. The emerging story of how to actually keep them clean may be a whole ’nother industry. If ride share companies are eager to slice costs by eliminating actually drivers, how will those bare bones margins accommodate the pukers, the pee-ers and the wow, that burrito really didn’t agree with me eaters?

I spent a weekend in New Liskeard once, a tiny town far north in Ontario. They do an annual Biker’s Reunion every Canada Day. The place is inundated with visitors and drunken revellers. I took a cab back to my hotel (after a one hour wait) and asked my driver what he did if he had a barfer.

“Two hundred bucks,” he responded. “They get charged two hundred bucks.”

Realizing that it was overwhelmingly drunks who called for cabs at events like this, I wondered if the steep surcharge was actually enforceable.

“We only have two cars,” he responded. “You can’t hide puke.”

Seems the new heroes of the autonomous ride sharing age might just be the car detailers.

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