A self-driving Uber went the wrong way on a one-way street in Pittsburgh

XXIX

Wrong way.

I was waiting to send Oversharing this morning until this story published: Uber’s self-driving cars are already getting into scrapes on the streets of Pittsburgh. Uber driver Nathan Stachelek was pulled over near the University of Pittsburgh on the night of Sept. 26 when he saw one of Uber’s autonomous cars turn the wrong way on a one-way road. Stachelek couldn’t tell whether the car was in autonomous mode or being controlled by its safety driver, but watched as the vehicle realized its mistake, backed up, and drove away. He shot a short video and uploaded it to Facebook. “The driver waved to me and whatnot, it was kind of funny,” he told me. Two nights earlier, an Uber driver named Jason (he asked I withhold his last name, fearing retribution from Uber) encountered a self-driving Uber and another car pulled over about a mile from the company’s Advanced Technologies Center. The second car had its hazard lights on and someone was out looking at the vehicles in what appeared to be the aftermath of a minor accident.

While it would be easy to write these stories off as minor mishaps, both suggest how much work Uber has left to do on its autonomous software even as it’s begun putting real passengers into the vehicles last. They also raise the question of whether Uber should be doing more to share information with Pittsburgh, as even small incidents involving self-driving cars are arguably a matter of general interest when they happen on public roads. Google, for example, releases monthly reports on the activities of its driverless cars. At the moment, Pittsburgh doesn’t have any formal information-sharing arrangements with Uber. Meanwhile, Uber is reaching out to local drivers as potential safety drivers for its autonomous fleet. Stachelek was among those who applied, though he doesn’t have a ton of confidence in the project. “We are a long way from the driverless cars taking over, or at least I hope we are,” he says. “I don’t think the technology is ready yet.”

Safety first.

Here is an eye-opening story from Caroline O’Donovan at BuzzFeed on Blue Apron, the $2 billion meal-kit unicorn that wants to bring families together over healthy, home-cooked, Instagrammable food. But not everything about Blue Apron is so wholesome:

In the 38 months since Blue Apron’s facility opened, the Richmond Police Department has received calls from there twice because of weapons, three times for bomb threats, and seven times because of assault. Police captains have met twice with Blue Apron to discuss the frequency of calls to the police. At least four arrests have been made due to violence on the premises, or threats of it. Employees have reported being punched in the face, choked, groped, pushed, pulled, and even bitten by each other on the job, according to police reports. Employees recalled bomb scares, brandished kitchen knives, and talk of guns.

It goes on like that, in excruciating detail, made even worse by the fact that Blue Apron declined to be interviewed and responded to the well-documented health and safety violations with boilerplate comments about “creating the best possible workplace experience for all of our employees.” Interestingly, Blue Apron is apparently the worst offender among its many meal- and grocery-kit startups out there, as well as compared to more traditional food processors.

HelloFresh, which is one of Blue Apron’s biggest competitors, opened a 100,000-square-foot facility in Richmond in 2015. That facility, which currently has a staff of over 250, has so far received zero citations from Cal/OSHA (although an inspection at the company’s call center in New Jersey did lead to $4,420 in penalties following an appeal). Neither have Blue Apron’s other, smaller neighbors, including the Delmonte Fresh warehouse that neighbors Blue Apron’s facility, the nearby Grace Baking facility, the Richmond Wholesale Meat warehouse, and the Costco Wholesale facility, which in 2014-2015 had slightly more employees than Blue Apron. Safeway Bread, which abuts Blue Apron’s facility, does have some violations on its record dating to 2012, but fewer than Blue Apron. Blue Apron’s other competitors in the meal-box space—Chef’d, Plated, Purple Carrot, and the like—are smaller and slower-growing, but none have a workplace accident in the federal government’s database.

In many ways this isn’t a new story—tech startup achieves absurdly high valuation, faces tremendous pressure to scale, makes poor choices—but because Blue Apron’s brand is so focused on ethics and sustainability it seems especially damning. “Oh, you use Blue Apron? I heard their workers labor in dangerous warehouses” does not exactly make for warm and fuzzy dinner conversation.

Buy it now.

Back at Quartz, my coworker Chris Groskopf has a fascinating piece on how the digital age has “destroyed the concept of ownership”:

When you purchase an ebook you must agree to the Terms of Service (TOS) that tell you what you can do with it. TOS are essentially very one-sided contracts written by the company selling the digital goods. Often they include provisions that shield the business from liability and even prevent the consumer from going to court if they feel ripped off. Typically a consumer’s only choice is to accept them as they are, or to decline to use the service entirely. An overwhelming majority of internet users agree to them without reading them. In one experiment 98% of users failed to notice a clause requiring them to give up their first-born as payment.

This isn’t strictly sharing economy stuff, but there are certainly parallels. The ride-hailing master plan, for example, is that one day consumers will stop owning cars and instead subscribe to services like Uber and Lyft. Co-living projects like WeLive and Roam are premised on the idea that people don’t want to be tied to one apartment or place, and so would prefer to rent a mostly furnished unit on a monthly basis than sign a multi-year lease or buy a home outright. Then there’s the “assetless” philosophy of many a sharing economy company, which eschews owning goods or employing people in favor of “connecting two sides of a platform” and hiring workers as independent contractors. Stuff is out, services are in. It’s time to start thinking about what that means.

Other stuff.

Join us at the Next Billion in San Francisco. Why I’m Buying an Exploding Smartphone. “Bradley Tusk never intended to become a startup consigliere.” Uber to the doctor. Uber to the Summit train station. What Uber Drivers Think About Their Robot Replacements. Uber’s insane liability waiver. Instacart doubles down in San Diego. Homechef raises $40 million. Foodpanda shuts down in Indonesia. Airbnb mobilizes in New York City. The US hotel industry attacks Airbnb for “arrogance.” Amazon Eats the Department Store. Insurance by the mile. Google’s Waze quietly expands. Careem seeks $500 million in funding. Uber teams up with #brands. California strengthens background checks for ride-hailing. Philly agreement that legalized ride-hailing to expire. Lyft driver killed in hit-and-run. Things Lyft finds “Very cool!” Uber ghost drivers. Warehouse robots. Commute with Lyft. Big Papi does Undercover Lyft.