The Real Threat to Las Vegas Cabs – Autonomous Vehicles

Recently, there has been a lot of discussion around what ride share offerings such as Uber and Lyft have done to the cab industry in Las Vegas. Annual cab trips and fare revenue have plummeted since 2015 due to the increase in competition which is a concerning trend for drivers. A new, more disruptive threat lurks on the horizon however, vehicles that don’t need a driver at all.

Some of the biggest names in the tech and automotive world are working on developing autonomous vehicles. Google’s Waymo has been testing their autonomous ride share service with a small group of test customers and is planning on expanding the program slowly across the country. Waymo vehicles have employed “safety drivers” that could take control of the vehicle if something went awry, however, elimination of safety drivers has already been approved in California. The service is expected to compete directly with Uber, Lyft and Taxis.

Tesla, who’s Gigafactory 1 is located just outside Sparks, Nevada also has aspirations to launch their own driverless ride share service. CEO Elon Musk has stated that Tesla will allow owners to employ their cars to give autonomous rides on the “Tesla Network” and be called back when needed by their owner. The Tesla ride-share network will be comprised of both customer and company owned vehicles that according to Musk could be operational by late 2019. Tesla’s fleet of vehicles already posses the ability to navigate freeways, change lanes and employ on/off ramps on their own although a human still has to approve a lane change before the car executes the move.

Tesla Model 3 - Image Courtesy Tesla
Tesla Model 3 – Image Courtesy of Tesla

In fact, Las Vegas has already dipped its toes in the water of autonomous transportation. A driverless shuttle was recently tested ferrying passengers around a .6 mile fixed route in Downtown Las Vegas using a mixture of sensors and cameras to feel out its surroundings. Check out the video below of the little guy cruising around.

Safety of the public a benefit of autonomy

Autonomy of cabs and ride sharing services in Las Vegas could also help drive safety. According to the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) there were 37,461 people killed in motor vehicle crashes in 2016. The NHTSA also states that of all serious crashes, 94% are due to human error or choices. Autonomous vehicles don’t get distracted, drunk, tired or make poor decisions. After rigorous, comprehensive testing which companies like Waymo and Tesla are undertaking now, we can be confident that passengers will arrive safely more often than today.

Nevada has also shown support for the development and testing of driverless vehicles through legislation. In 2017, Governor Sandoval signed Assembly Bill 69 which helped lift barriers to testing autonomous vehicles and supports research and development efforts.

Vegas resorts have also introduced autonomy to streamline operations while delivering a unique experience. Vdara, among other properties, have introduced autonomous robots that deliver snacks and toiletry items to guestrooms. Vdara’s robots, affectionately named “Fetch” and “Jett” help provide a “fun and refined experience for guests”.

Will the riding public embrace autonomous ride hailing?

It’s common to approach new technologies with trepidation and we would assume some will shy away from driverless options early on. Some will avoid hailing an autonomous vehicle because of safety concerns while others will yearn for the expertise of an actual cab driver that has intimate knowledge of the city.

Others will scoff at potential job losses caused by the automation of a job that employs many in Las Vegas. Concern for loss of jobs doesn’t represent a logical reason to oppose change however. Economies and the jobs within them change with technology. As one job fades over the horizon, other opportunities arise. Just ask the over 3,000 workers (Elon Musk hopes to grow to 20,000) at Gigafactory 1 in Nevada.

This is coming sooner than we realize – eventually, the vast majority of rides in Las Vegas (and nationwide) will be without a person behind the wheel.

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