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Robotaxi Rides Will Never Be Free

Photo: Intel
Photo: Intel

Last week, The Atlantic put forth an interesting idea: in the future, what if we could hail a driverless taxi for free? Free sounds cool, but there’s a catch. You’d have to stop along your route at “sponsoring locations,” like a Whole Foods or Starbucks. The idea sounds hellish enough, but there’s virtually no way this is going to happen anyway.


It’s already a foregone conclusion that automakers are going to try to inundate you with ads in a driverless car, while others envision creating an “experimental entertainment pod” (see the topshot above courtesy of Warner Bros and Intel) that makes tooling around in a self-driving vehicle sound more stressful than a bad traffic jam.

What The Atlantic is propositioning sounds good on paper: A free ride? Great.

But what that entails is submitting yourself to the soul-sucking experience of making pitstops at every corporation with the extra cash reserves to pay for a sponsorship.

Picture a not-too-distant future where a trip across town is available to anyone who will spend 15 minutes in McDonald’s on the way. Not a fast-food fan? Then for you it’s Starbucks, a bookstore, the game parlor. Rides with a child stop at the Disney store, while teenage girls are routed via next decade’s version of Zara and H&M. Unlike today’s UberPool, with its roundabout routes and multiple passenger pickups, “UberFree” features tailor-made routes and thoughtfully targeted stops.


Thoughtfully targeted? To me, a tailor-made route is one that gets me to my destination in peace.

There’s more to this thought experiment:

Realtors could pay to have the cars drive slowly past featured properties for sale, past the nice new elementary school in the slightly more affluent neighborhood. At election time, a candidate’s campaign would route voters through run-down areas while a voice-over blames the opponent for this decline. And if you happen to mention at some point in the day that you are chilly, or your shoes hurt, or you have a party to go to, the friendly virtual assistant that lives on all your devices—Alexa’s granddaughter—ensures that your next trip’s stops include relevant sponsored solutions.

So, in between being asked what entertainment you’d like to view (and you have to pick something) and a crush of ads being shoved down your throat, you also have to stop at Target or H&M because, hey, you like Stuff and Clothes, yeah?

The story hinges on an analogy to sponsored taxi rides in Las Vegas as to how and why Free Autonomous Rides could become a thing of the future, but that doesn’t do enough to explain away what’s the likelier outcome: tiered ad services. Take Hulu, for instance. At a base rate, you pay $7.99 per month for access to hundreds of TV shows and movies; the former requires you to slog through annoying commercials. If you’re willing to pay more, Hulu’s willing to remove the ads.


What The Atlantic’s pitching is that, say, Whole Foods will drop millions to sponsor a ride for you or I, so long as the robotaxi makes a pitstop at the grocery store on the way to our destination.

Putting aside the huge barriers autonomous technology still needs to overcome in order to be utilized in taxi services across the U.S., the story’s idea doesn’t jibe with the reality of our system. If there’s a way to make you pay for something (i.e., ads or no ads), capitalism will make that happen. The story actually makes this point itself:

But once independent drivers are replaced with autonomous vehicles under the control of a monolithic routing algorithm, if the company that controls the algorithm has special relationships with businesses, it can wield far more influence on where people shop and eat, on what they see—and where they do notgo.

Without the equivalent of net-neutrality regulation to protect humans traveling in cars, the flip side of sponsored rides could be ride surcharges: barriers to visiting places the algorithm sees as rivals.


Saying it aloud, the idea that algorithm could include an option for a free ride by agreeing to a stop at a department store seems even more incredible. The point of autonomous cars is to make money.

Senior Reporter, Jalopnik/Special Projects Desk

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son of a motherless goat (PSA: wash your hooves)

If I don’t have money to pay for an ad-free taxi ride what makes them think I have money to buy shit at their store?