In the heat of the Waymo-Uber trial, one might have missed this New York Times story that sheds a harsh light on one of the effects of industrywide disruption.
It documents the economic hardship taxi drivers have suffered in New York, a city they used to monopolize before ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft entered the scene. Particularly shocking is the story of Doug Shifter, a cab driver whose economic prospects had substantially declined in recent years, and who, on Monday walked up to City Hall with a shotgun and ended his life.
His story is one of a proud career driver, who for decades had chauffeured folks around the city in a job that provided him with a decent income and benefits. Now, as the Times writes, citing a Facebook note Shifter left behind, "He had lost his health insurance and accrued credit card debt and he would no longer work for 'chump change,' preferring, he said, to die in the hope that his sacrifice would draw attention to what drivers, too often unable to feed their families now, were enduring."
"He was not a participant in the gig economy; he was a casualty of it."
Dramatic displays from cab drivers in response to ride-hailing is not new, although I have yet to read one as tragic as this case. Usually, it's cabbies torching cars in anti-Uber protests that turn into riots.
A few years ago, as Uber and Lyft were sweeping across the globe, such demonstrations got headlines -- before self-driving cars became a real proposition and journalists became obsessed with minute technological advancements and the potential lifesaving benefits of full autonomy.
But as we get caught up in the hype of dramatic corporate maneuvering or espionage, let's not forget the age-old experience of disruption as a painful process. We often use the term "Luddite" as a slur, but the 19th-century English textile workers who smashed weaving machinery to protest technological progress had the foresight to see the transformation of their skilled work into low-paid gigs.
History marched on without them, but ride-hailing companies have a chance to build something new that empowers workers and avoids the missteps of the past. It sounds trite, but we should learn from the past, not dismiss it.
— Shiraz Ahmed