CMU should be careful when hitching ride with Uber

Last Monday, Carnegie Mellon announced a partnership with Uber in building the Uber Advanced Technologies Center. Most of the media focus has surrounded the possibility of self-driving cars, which promise to increase the safe, reliable transportation offered by Uber.

While this partnership offers a bright view into the future, there are also reasons to be wary of the potential consequences of Carnegie Mellon teaming up with a company constantly in the news for all the wrong reasons.

There are always reasons to be excited about technological partnerships. The final results are often enough to make life better for large swaths of the population, but intermediary discoveries in both software and hardware occasionally have the same effect.

Driverless cars in particular offer a rosy look to the future. Optimized driving routes and significantly better reaction times could improve highway safety and even minimize traffic. A world with fewer automobile accident deaths would be excellent, and if we reduce smog in the process that would be a major plus.

Unfortunately, there is some reason to question the prudence in partnering with Uber. Several claims have been publicly levied against Uber in recent months, and it would be naïve to simply ignore what has been said about the company.

One claim is that Uber undercuts taxi workers, specialized union workers who provide an important service. Undermining their job security by putting Uber cars on the market functionally busts the union, since Uber drivers are not unionized.

The partnership between Uber and CMU seems to respond to this in two ways.

The first is listed on the Carnegie Mellon press release on the partnership, stating that the center could create jobs in the innovation sector, an increasingly important component of Pittsburgh’s economy. Second, driverless cars theoretically will make cabs much safer, improving the quality of the service, which is good for consumers.

Another issue with the partnership is a moral qualm with Uber’s business practices. The most significant of Uber’s questionable practices was when an executive floated the idea of running smear campaigns against critical journalists, in what he believed to be an off-the-record discussion.

Another common qualm has to do with its interaction with competitors. Uber has been accused of ordering large numbers of cars from Lyft — its main competitor — and then canceling them, wasting the drivers’ time. Uber has also falsely told its drivers that working for both Uber and Lyft is banned by city ordinances in areas such as New York City.

It is always exciting to see Carnegie Mellon engaging the companies we hear about every day in an effort to increase the technological capabilities of the average citizen, but it is important to be aware of whom the university is working with. The potential returns on a partnership with Uber are large, but Uber will have to change their tune before we will be truly comfortable to be affiliated with it.