I’m dwelling on the future of transportation because of an episode of the Exponent podcast about, well, the future of transportation. Electricity replacing combustion engines, autonomous vehicles, and driving as a service, oh my! Ride-sharing startups like Uber and Lyft are currently filling that last niche, and eventually they’ll do it with fleets of self-driving sedans, SUVs, minivans, etc. No humans required — except for the software engineers and passengers.

One of Google's self-driving cars.

Prototype of a self-driving car by Google.

Uber has a cutthroat reputation, and they’ve earned it. I’m not a fan of their company culture, but I think the more interesting question is about the ethics of their business model. They depend on low-paid drivers who are independent contractors rather than employees, and thus are unable to organize and advocate for themselves. In the same vein, drivers have to deal with all the taxes usually handled by businesses, and they don’t get overtime or health insurance.

Is this arrangement immoral? On the one hand, we have labor regulations because companies will exploit people in every way they can. We need those laws. (Capitalism is not a foolproof system!) On the other hand, drivers opt in. They choose to work for Uber.

Who bears responsibility — the company who created the system, or the individuals who choose to participate?