Yellow Cab, Uber, and RoboTaxis

Yellow Cab, Uber, and RoboTaxis

It was the night of May 17th at 2AM, and I was really starting to get scared. My leg was swelling badly, and starting to go numb. They had warned me that this might happen, and that if it did, I’d have to return to the hospital to have them loosen the splint on my broken leg. Around Noon that day, I had been riding a motorcycle off-road, crashed, and had broken my Tibia and Fibula. I spent most of the day in the hospital, I was in a lot of pain, couldn’t sleep and couldn’t eat.

I was staying in the guest bedroom since I was in so much pain, basically just laying there moaning. My 3 and 6 year old daughters, as well as my fiance were asleep in their rooms when I realized that my leg was getting worse. I didn’t want to spend thousands of dollars on an ambulance sine we literally live five minutes from multiple excellent hospitals in near downtown Akron, OH. So, I fired up the Uber app on my phone and tried to call a car. I waited. Then, I waited some more. The app kept drawing lines, and redrawing the screen, giving me a strong sense that it was trying to find a driver. I waited some more. I waited five minutes, then 10 minutes. During the wait, I walked into our bedroom and woke my fiance up to tell her that I needed to go to the hospital.

We started brainstorming what to do. I ended up calling the Cigna Telehealth number to get their opinion. I had a real person on the phone long before Uber found a car. They asked me some questions and told me to go to the hospital.  Right. I got annoyed and cancelled the Uber request. I’m down to two options. We can either wake the kids up, get them dressed and go through that entire rigmarole, or call a friend. I tried calling a few different friends, finally the third one answered.

Analyzing The Failure

In the world of computer operations, this is literally the nightmare failure state, a partial or slow failure. We prefer servers, virtual machines, services, or container to fail cleanly with a crisp “it’s working” or “it’s not working” instead of a very slow response that leaves you unsure if something is broken or not. We’ve known this since the 1990s when web-scale computer operations became a thing. We also know this pattern in sales, it’s bread a saying called “no slow no’s” – as in – figure out if the person wants to buy or not, and move on, because it’s too expensive to wait around.

This is the exact kind of failure Uber had that night, but it’s worse than that. Ten years ago, in 2014, things weren’t bad. Almost everyone had smart phones, cell tower networks were great, cars were quite reliable, and over built. I think 2014 and 2015 might go down as some of the best years ever for Westerners. No major wars, etc. If I’d have had this injury in 2014, I’d have called Yellow Cab at 2AM, they’d have sent some weird dude who works night shift over in a beat up old Ford LTD or Chevy Crown Victoria. He’d have known exactly where my house was, no farting around with text messages, and calls. I wouldn’t have had to look at an Uber Map, getting annoyed because the driver made a wrong turn and was stuck on a one-way street, driving further away so they could turn around.

The cab driver would have taken me to the hospital in five minutes, and hell he might even have known about weird stuff going on that night while he listened to the police scanner out of boredom. He might have advised that I go to Akron General instead of City Hospital because of a five car accident on route 8, knowing that they took most of the injuries to City Hospital.

Now, there would have been some downsides. I might have slid around on the semi-nasty surface of the vinyl covering on the back set, wondering to myself if any strippers or hookers rode back here earlier in the night and may have left a mess. The cab driver might have also been annoyed when I tried to use a credit card. And he might have mumbled to himself strangely while we drove. I’ll admit, 2014 wasn’t perfect by any means. BUT, I’D HAVE GOTTEN TO THE HOSPITAL without an ambulance.

The Future

By no means do I expect that fully-functioning RoboTaxis are coming to the United States on any timeline even kind of resembling the babble that comes out of Elon Musk’s mouth. That said, I’m rooting for him, and anybody else working on the problem. Uber destroyed the local cab companies and things worked fine while Venture Capital (VC) money was subsidizing this supposed Gig Economy. But, as the money ran out, we were left with a system that didn’t work. The workers dried up because the gig economy didn’t pay enough to deal with the chaos of driving an Uber at 2AM. I get it. But, it’s a net loss of service in our economy.

I suspect it will take until 2040 or 2050 to get actual, real RoboTaxis, where I can use an app, call a car, and get to the hospital safely at 2AM (gooey left-over bodily fluids in the back seat aside!), or to the airport at 4:30AM for an early flight. I hope I don’t have to wait that long for Silicon Valley to “make the world a better place” (my sarcasm is free!), but fear we will live in this degraded service state for the next 20 years. Probably more importantly, I hope I don’t EVER break my leg again 🙂

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