Nevada is ready for self driving cars, official says

Las Vegas taxi driver Andrew Gnatovich believes there’s something patriotic about driving.

Weekend car rides with the family. Road trips with friends. The freedom to get in a car and cruise the open highways, not quite sure where you’ll end up.

“It’s deeply ingrained into American culture,” he said. “It symbolizes freedom in so many ways.”

After 13 years as a taxi driver, he still loves the job and the freedom that comes with it.

But Gnatovich believes the cab-driving occupation’s days are numbered as the development of self-driving cars becomes increasingly advanced.

“It’s coming,” Gnatovich said. “It’s just a matter of how soon it’s going to get here.”

Tech changing industry

Experts disagree on when that will be.

Sam Abuelsamid, a senior research analyst at Navigant Research, estimates self-driving cars will become commercially available as soon as 2019.

“The job of being taxi driver or Lyft or Uber driver is effectively going to go away,” Abuelsamid said. “There will probably still be some in certain areas, depending on the technology rollout, but probably by the mid- to late ’20s in most areas, you’ll probably see that job disappear.”

Abuelsamid estimates there are already close to 500 autonomous vehicle prototypes being tested today by various companies globally.

Others, like political author Steven Hill, say the autonomous takeover is nothing but science fiction.

“It’s a lovely vision, but we are so from from that,” Hill said. He believes it will be another 20 years before commercialized autonomous vehicles roll out, if that soon.

Hill, the author of “Raw Deal,” a book on how automation and a changing economy are affecting the American workforce, pointed to the failures of companies working to pave the way in the autonomous vehicle industry, including transportation network companies like Uber. The ride-sharing app company made headlines this past winter when its self-driving cars ran six red lights in San Francisco.

How will self-driving cars affect the taxi industry’s future?

“These cars aren’t anywhere near ready for prime time,” Hill said.

Hill said all of the split-second decisions humans make at the wheel can’t be incorporated into a simple algorithm for the vehicles.

Drivers to take a hit

Local taxi drivers have equally opposing viewpoints about when autonomous vehicles will make their mark.

Whether it’s five years or 20 years, “drivers will suffer,” said Stan Olsen, chairman of the Nevada Taxicab Authority.

Nevada is the third-largest employer of taxicab drivers and chauffeurs, behind California and New York, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Local cabdriver Tim Sweep predicted that all cars in Las Vegas will be self-driving within 20 years. He said some cabdrivers will stick around as a novelty, but others won’t be so lucky.

“It’s slowly eating away at us,” Sweep said. 

Taxi driver Nanette Schude said she is already planning for a career change in preparation for the autonomous takeover.“I’ll have to get a different job,” Schude said, adding that she’s thinking about working for McCarran International Airport.Meanwhile, Paul Ryu, who has been working in Las Vegas as a driver since 2011, doesn’t believe autonomous vehicles will arrive in time to affect his career.If his job were to become obsolete, Ryu said he would return to the service industry, maybe at one of the local casinos. But for now, he feels his job is safe.“I’m not worried at all,” he said. “It’s going to happen after I’m retired for sure, maybe even after I die. It’s way down the road.”

Cabdriver Adam Mohammad said he has heard about self-driving cars on the news, but he hasn’t given much thought about their impact on the taxi industry. He said he is unsure what career he would turn to next if cab driving were no longer an option.

“I’ll figure it out when it comes,” he said. “I just go one day at a time.”

John Madonna, who has been driving taxis in Las Vegas since 2004, doesn’t expect to see self-driving cars within his lifetime and hasn’t seen the cab companies express concern, either.

“The taxi business and the taxi drivers as a whole pretty much focus on what’s right in front of them,” he said. “They know technology is inevitable, but it’s something they really don’t worry about until it actually gets in front of them.”

Cab companies unperturbed

Las Vegas’ 16 taxi companies “see the writing on the wall,” Olsen said, but, to his knowledge, cab company owners aren’t doing anything to prepare for the arrival of self-driving cars.

“I think they’ve thought about it,” he said. “Like everybody, they’re not sure where to go with it yet. It’s been my experience in the last year that they have been slow to adapt to technology and change.”

The director of Las Vegas taxi company Yellow Checker Star disagrees. Jonathan Schwartz said the company has been at the forefront of adapting to new technology, installing smart meters and cameras and using apps to enhance safety and customer experience.

Autonomous vehicle technology is not yet developed enough to warrant preparation, he said.

“It’s many years away,” Schwartz said. “We’re focused on our drivers, and we’ll deal with whatever technology comes down the road when it’s actually available.”

Jay Nady, the owner of the Las Vegas taxi company A-Cab, agreed.

“I think it’s too early to put it in our sights as a serious competitor,” Nady said. “I think that someday it will be around, but not in my lifespan and probably not my children’s.”

Olsen said Las Vegas cab companies need to start planning for the future now, examining their business model and embracing the changing technology.

He said if transportation companies like local cab businesses and transportation network companies don’t prepare, “they’re in trouble.”

Gnatovich, the taxi driver, said the the topic of autonomous vehicle development isn’t common “around the yard” or when drivers talk among each other.

“Maybe it’s because no one wants to admit it,” he said.

Contact Bailey Schulz at bschulz@review-journal.com or (702)383-0256. Follow @bailey_schulz on Twitter.

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