Uber are undoubtedly one of the most exciting companies of the past decade. It has broken the established taxi industry to the extent that the word Uber has become both a noun and verb - pretty impressive for a company less than 10 years old.
It has done this through intelligent use of technology, leveraging the power of smartphone technology to put passengers and drivers together at a spot convenient for both. To do this it has collected a significant amount of data, but compared to other companies, the amount of data it holds is relatively small.
Think about how much data Google or Facebook has on every single person that uses the platform and Uber’s numbers are not even in the same bracket, despite their impressive size.
However, with the moves being made by the ride-sharing giant, it could become a major data holder.
At present it has some incredibly useful data on driving in urban areas, which it has recently begun to share more widely. This is through their Movement app, which allows people to see how traffic is moving in specific areas. This kind of information is incredibly useful to everyone from city planners through to delivery companies who are trying to work to a tight schedule. It has the potential to become a major source of good in key urban areas. As it matures, this kind of work is likely to also help to ease congestion, something that is essential, given that according to the UN 54% of the world’s population live in urban areas today, a figure that will increase to 66% by 2050. In these circumstances, knowing how people are moving around these urban areas is key.
This is not the only interesting development from Uber, though, as it is moving into both self-driving vehicles and long distance haulage, two interconnected areas in which data is going to have a profound impact.
Uber, for instance, purchased Otto in August 2016, which gives them the capabilities to create self driving trucks, something that has the potential to fundamentally change the haulage industry. If you were to look at lorry drivers, current laws limit their driving time to 70 hours per week in the US and 56 hours in the EU, so companies are forced to either change drivers over very long distances, or have deliveries take longer, neither of which are good for bottom lines. Self driving haulage reduces this, whilst also reducing the chances of a crash, with 94% of road accidents caused by human error, according to the US Department of Transportation. It will mean more deliveries being made, in shorter amounts of time whilst travelling considerably further distances.
Where at present Uber can offer some relatively simple forms of data collection regarding average speeds moving through specific areas, the development of self-driving trucks will mean that it can collect a huge amount more. Given the self driving aspect, each vehicle is likely to have thousands of sensors that can pick up the smallest change in conditions, other road users and even the condition of the road, with potentially thousands of these vehicles driving millions of miles every year, it quickly adds up and could perhaps become a powerful tool for understanding any number of challenges. From basic elements like the gradual decline in the state of roads in different conditions through to complex elements like the performance of other self-driving vehicles. All of this is likely to be held by Uber, who, if it eventually dominates the haulage market in the same way as the taxi market, will possess one of the most important records of public infrastructure and road safety ever created.
We are still some way off this, though, with self driving cars not legal, let alone trucks and lorries. However, the future is bright for both Uber and the self-driving industry, especially when it comes to the potential data that Uber could gather and how that could be used for public good.