No matter who wins Waymo vs. Uber, everybody else will lose

A Waymo self-driving car is shown in San Francisco.
A Waymo self-driving car is shown in San Francisco. AP

It’s hard to look away when billionaires collide – especially when one of those billionaires is the hard-charging former CEO of Uber, known for running over the little man in the name of “disruption” and higher corporate profits.

And so, we can’t blame anyone for getting sucked into the Silicon Valley soap opera that unfolded in a San Francisco courtroom this week. At issue was a $1.8 billion lawsuit over supposedly stolen intellectual property for self-driving cars.

In one corner, there was Travis Kalanick, the ousted and unrepentant founder of the ride-sharing service Uber. In the other, there was Larry Page, the chief executive of Alphabet, parent company of Google and Waymo.

Waymo insisted that Uber is run by entrepreneurs so greedy and desperate to get a fleet of autonomous vehicles on the road that they poached trade secrets. Uber says industry leader Waymo is run by people so terrified of competition that they shopped “conspiracy theories” in federal court to kneecap their biggest rival.

On Tuesday, things got so contentious that testimony veered into why Kalanick wanted to extract “a pound of flesh” as part of his strategy for being first to market with self-driving cars.

On Friday morning, the companies surprised everyone by announcing a $245 million settlement. There were gasps of shock from the courtroom.

Break out the popcorn.

The drama is entertaining, but for the millions of Americans who aren’t billionaires, it will be fleeting. The economic disruption of self-driving cars could begin soon.

By this fall, Waymo plans to launch the nation’s first revenue-generating ride service of autonomous cars in Phoenix, where the laws that govern such endeavors are notoriously lax. The company is buying thousands of Chrysler Pacifica Hybrids to add to a fleet that already has 600 Chrysler light trucks outfitted with its autonomous driving software, computers and sensors.

Other companies surely will follow in other states, although they might take a little longer than Waymo, judging by the latest “Autonomous Vehicle Disengagement Reports” released by California’s Department of Motor Vehicles. The reports list how many miles were driven by companies authorized to operate self-driving cars in the state, as well as how often drivers were forced to take the wheel.

Waymo led the pack in miles driven and safety, followed by General Motors. Nineteen companies registered to test vehicles on California roads last year, up from nine in 2016. And of the dozen companies that logged a total of 507,126 miles, they reported 2,304 “disengagements” or about one human intervention every 220 miles.

Uber didn’t have to submit anything to the state yet because the company only started testing autonomous vehicles here in May, after a short, but idiotic stint in Phoenix in defiance of California regulators.

Based on the data provided, experts agree that autonomous vehicles aren’t ready for prime-time yet – that is, unless Waymo is driving. But the kinks are being worked out quickly, and so breathless speculation aside, a verdict in a San Francisco courtroom won’t stop the industry or even slow it down.

That means that at some point, millions of cab drivers, long-distance truckers and others are likely to lose their jobs. On Monday, as attorneys for Waymo and Uber were preparing to give their opening statements, a livery driver killed himself in front of City Hall in New York, lamenting in a suicide note how the influx of Uber drivers had ruined his life.

Uber faced the possibility of having to shut down or scale down its existing autonomous vehicle program if it lost the case, if it were found that the company was using technology pioneered by Anthony Levandowski, a former Waymo engineer who joined Uber under Kalanick. A shutdown probably won’t happen, but even if it did, other self-driving car companies would surely pick up the slack.

We won’t escape the greed of these billionaires that easily.

Steve Law has been driving for the services in search of extra income and flexible hours.