Will Self-Driving Taxis Help the Poor?

Self-driving taxis will offer many conveniences, but how can the industry make sure there aren't too many challenges that prevent poor people from reaping the benefits? Brad Templeton explores this issue.

Photo Caption: Robot Taxi Inc. has begun field tests of self-driving taxi service in Kanagawa prefecture, which is just south of Tokyo. The self-driving taxis will carry passengers from their homes to local grocery stores. Robot Taxi hopes to commercialize the service by 2020. (Photo Credit: Reuters/Yuya Shino)

Poor riders would still have to pay more to start, probably, or suffer the other indignities of the lower class ride. However, a poor rider who develops a sterling reservation might be able to get some of that early surcharge back later. (Not if it’s insurance. You can’t get insurance back if you don’t use it, it doesn’t work that way!)

It could also be possible for the poor to get friends to vouch for them and give them some starter reputation.

Unfortunately, poor who squander their reputation (or worse, just ride with friends who trash a car) could find themselves unable to travel except at high cost they can’t afford. It could be like losing your car.

The government

The government will have an interest in making sure the poor are not left out of this mobility revolution. As such, there might be some subsidy program to help people get going, and a safety net for loss of reputation. This of course comes with a cost. Taxes would pay for the insurance to fix cars that are damaged by riders unable to be held accountable.

The alternative, after all, is needing to continue otherwise unprofitable transit services with human drivers just for the sake of these people who can’t get private robocar rides. Transit may continue (though without human drivers) at peak times, but it almost surely vanishes off-peak if not for this.

Governments could also simply force this on operators as part of the cost of doing business, effectively making regular riders subsidize the higher insurance rates of the poor.


A more serious concern of fleet owners might be non-accidental damage, ie. vandalism or even theft. In such rare events cars could move into a high-surveillance mode, beaming video of everything back home. This is something the police might investigate, and could cause the piercing of a privacy proxy service. (The most common question we get at Starship Technologies is how the small delivery robots will deal with theft or vandalism, though in reality it is far from the biggest issue.)


Some will propose solving this with surveillance. Making it clear to riders that they are under surveillance, mitigated by the mandatory destruction of the video after a day has passed. Sadly, most businesses and governments like to retain data so it’s hard to accept promises it really will be destroyed, and even so, people would feel much less free in general in the vehicles. Who hasn’t engaged in something private in a car? I suspect a large fraction of people have had some sort of sex in one. There are a lot of other activities that would be self-censored.


hared vehicles and crime

The question gets more serious with shared-ride vehicles. Today, with things like UberPool, you have both a driver in the car and the knowledge that your seat-mate is paying with a credit card and is in theory identified. That could be an issue in a car with no driver and the risk of harassment or crime. We’ve often seen people get unruly on a bus (especially late at night on the weekend when people are drunk and being responsible by riding the bus.)

In spite of the fact that assaults in Uber are rare, there is a great deal of press and concern about them. (This is in part because the Taxis that compete with Uber want to convince people that riding in it is much more dangerous than monopoly licensed taxi.)

There are a few obvious options here. Riders can have a panic button which invokes surveillance or even a videoconference with an operations center. The remote party can’t physically intervene but can stop the vehicle, call police and speak to the offender, as well as record video and any identity information.

Vehicles designed for sharing with untrustable parties can also have dividers. While not offering perfect security - you also need to be able to open the dividers to get out the other side in case of an accident - they can improve the privacy and security quite a bit. If the other rider is a risk, you are still vulnerable getting in or out, even if you can lock down the divider.

Shared transportation is important for the poor as it offers the lowest cost option, and it’s also important at rush hour. We might see a world, however, in which the middle class refuse to share vehicles with people who are less accountable or have no reputation for reliability. Today, you often see the homeless on transit, but many on the transit wish they weren’t there. It would be a strange reversal if that wish were translated into a world where nobody will ride with the homeless or poor and they have to ride alone - at higher cost.

Get a criminal record and your chances of riding with other people will go way down. Indeed, get any negative reputation and you may ride only with other people who have no choice about it.

In general, when not pushed into it by factors at rush-hour, the wealthy will stick to private robotaxis or luxury shared robotaxis populated only by those of similar income.


People will be particularly paranoid about their children. They won’t want them riding with untrusted strangers, certainly not with anybody of negative reputation. This might limit the ride options of the children as much as the people with the negative reputations. Children below a certain age also need adult supervision, performed to one degree or another by the bus driver on things like school buses. This presents another challenging problem.

Race & Pickup

In a reversal of this, the news is generally good for reputable people of minority races. Today, they find it hard to get a taxi in many places. Barack Obama has reported his experience in being unable to get a cab before he was President. One thing minorities love about Uber is they always get a ride. Robotaxis will be even more non-discriminatory. At the same time, passengers may not be, and because some races are poorer than others, on average, the factors listed above could end up disproportionately hurting certain ethnic groups. Of course, discrimination on the basis of race and similar factors is illegal in most places, but that doesn’t stop it from happening.

People also like that Uber comes even in poor neighborhoods, something that many taxis don’t. Compared to taxis it has been a win for the poor and robotaxis could be, too.

What solutions do you have for providing low cost and equitable transportation to all in the world of robotaxis and shared self-driven vehicles?

This article was republished with permission from Brad Templeton’s Robocars blog.

About the Author

Brad Templeton · Brad Templeton is a developer of and commentator on self-driving cars. He writes and researches the future of automated transportation at Robocars.com.
Contact Brad Templeton: 4brad@templetons.com  ·  View More by Brad Templeton.
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