Former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick once described autonomous vehicles as an existential threat to his business model — and that business is becoming viciously fierce as each player tries to make it to market first. Elon Musk said as much on his recent conference call with investors.
"I think we're really well positioned," Musk said, according to TechCrunch, for having "ultimately millions of shared, autonomous electric vehicles."
Musk's comments highlight the fact that companies that aren't considered ride-hailing companies today could pose a competitive challenge in the not-too-distant future.
Legacy automakers are hard at work on self-driving cars, and companies like Apple and Google have also looked at the space. Indeed, Alphabet's Waymo and Waze already have small transportation programs.
Then there are some more futuristic, far-off bets, such as Hyperloop technology, aerial vehicles and tunnels.
Most ride-hailing companies have tried to future-proof themselves by doing self-driving car research, and Uber even has a flying taxi idea. But not only are they competing with some of the most advanced, well-heeled groups working today — there's also the problem of protecting drivers from being displaced by new technology (a problem that non-ride-hailing companies won't have to face).
"Uber and the gig economy both exhibit a clear duality," the Economic Policy Institute wrote this month. "On the one hand, these platforms engage many participants, though most do so for supplementary income on a very part-time basis and frequently for a limited time. On the other hand, these platforms have a core group who are full-time, and year-round workers who provide a large share of the services to consumers provided by these platforms."
As more work is automated, it could displace the "core group" of drivers that have fueled ride-hailing's growth. Dealing with that transition could be crucial to the longevity of ride-hailing companies.
When autonomous vehicle saturation peaks, U.S. drivers could see job losses at a rate of 25,000 a month, or 300,000 a year, according to a report from Goldman Sachs Economics Research (although truck drivers would be more affected than taxi drivers). Uber has countered with research that indicates self-driving trucks could improve employment.
Nonetheless, Uber's quest to master future technologies could present a challenge for the company, which has recently promised to soften Kalanick's stance:
"Look, this is the way the world is going," Kalanick said in 2014 at the inaugural Code Conference. His explanation to Uber drivers who might lose their jobs down the road? "If Uber doesn't go there, it's not going to exist either way."