The Rise and Fall of Udrive

April 28, 2098, San Franciso Chronicle

If someone would ask you “what is the most influential technology company of the XXI century,” the answer would be obvious: Udrive. This ride-sharing company that started off as a smart taxi service that let ordinary people earn money by driving people to their destinations has shaped the modern world like no other company did, even though most of it wasn’t planned.

Image credit: Anton Bulyonov

That’s the wonderful and terrible thing about technology. It changes everything.

It all started with the first technology that was labeled as “essential” — self-driving cars. The problem was proven to be much harder than it looked, twice. First, in 1980–1990s where multiple government-funded defense contracts and research projects attempted to create an autonomous vehicle. Second, in 2015–2025, when the autonomous vehicles seemed to be “almost there” and big amounts of venture capital was poured into startups to win the future multi-trillion market. The first wave laid out a theoretical foundation that the second wave used and almost got it, but a series of unfortunate post-pandemic events convinced the general public that this technology is not as safe as desired. Luckily the pioneers of the technology continued making slow but steady progress, and in 2035 Norway led by example adopting self-driving technology with great success. Within the next ten years, self-driving cars were everywhere.

Besides creating a huge $30 trillion market, self-driving cars significantly reduced fatalities, optimized energy usage, changed the way how we plan and build cities, allowed multiple new markets to emerge. Still, all in all, it was an evolutionary development. The revolution came from Udrive.

Udrive, the ride-sharing giant, was unique in many ways, and one of them was the amount of time it took the company to become profitable. The company was growing at the unimaginable rate but was deeply unprofitable. At first, it is expected, and it is a good thing: you are making a lot of money, but you put all of it and more into development, grow, open service in new cities and make even more money, which you put again into development… At some point, the growth slows down, and the company becomes profitable. Udrive was doing very well with the “growth” part, but the “profit” part just didn’t happen. Changes in the law that made business much less profitable, drivers’ demands, global pandemic, not mentioning constant internal tensions — you can’t find five years when almost everyone thought “that’s it for the Udrive.”

The key to success was self-driving technology. The company quickly adopted a new way of doing transportation, investing a tremendous amount of capital into a fleet of self-driving cars, and moving 80% of the rides to robots and thus dramatically cutting costs. The investment paid off almost immediately: within a year, Udrive stock price grew 200%. But that was only the beginning.

Udrive continued to look for ways to cut costs. The next big expense to optimize was maintenance. It was human drivers’ responsibility to keep their cars clean and safe, and with human drivers gone, the company now had to pay for all of that, and that was a lot of money. A whole ecosystem of intelligent robots was developed to optimize this expense, and soon enough, all batteries, wheels, broken displays in vehicles were replaced by these mechanical workers. Cleaning, charging, brakes check, electronics fixes — everything was automated. There were robots to maintain robots that maintain cars also, and robots to maintain those robots. A crew of only a few people was required to manage a service center for a huge hub like New-York-103 or Dallas-40. The results of this investment were mixed: while the gradual rollout of such automated centers helped to reduce a significant portion of the maintenance costs, a lot of money had to be spent for legal battles.

Investors weren’t super happy with the results of this long and expensive project, and in an attempt to cut costs even further Udrive proposed something radical: to convert all the robots involved in ride-sharing and maintenance into independent economic subjects with financial responsibility before their creator. AI was widely used in many industries and was quite mature by that time, assisting managers at different levels in decision making. Still, it was never used in a way where AI has to figure out how to make money and pay income tax to its creator. Vast experience with legal issues helped the giant to clear all law-related questions quickly, and soon enough, self-driving cars maintenance was done by self-sustaining intelligent robots.

This changed the world.

If instead of paying for robot’s parts, electricity, and maintenance, you could put all these responsibilities on a machine and even require it to pay you — why would you not do that? Medical, maintenance, science research assistance, terraforming — all robots involved in these and other industries soon become independent contractors that have a job and bills to pay. More and more companies were converting their liabilities into assets by giving AI a certain level of autonomy.

This move definitely made investors happy turning Udrive financial model back to its original one, except that instead of “passenger pays the driver for the ride and a portion of it goes to the company” it was now “passenger and driver pay for the ride.” It wasn’t all that ideal, though — it took another decade to build enough infrastructure for robots to function effectively. If demand in one area is not that high anymore, a robot would lose its job and would do nothing, not generating any revenue. AI labor exchange organizations were built to address this problem. Old robots required spare parts that were no longer produced, but the government ruled that such parts must be produced and subsidized companies to resurrect the manufacturing of these parts. Competing companies created a few different AI-trade protocols, and a whole legal branch that translated rules from one protocol to another emerged. These and the whole host of similar issues required the joint effort of Udrive, companies from other sectors, and government to essentially create an AI-bureaucracy to let this new type of economy function. But despite the complexity, it worked surprisingly well, allowing more useful work to be done with far fewer resources wasted.

With AI and robots gradually learning to take care of labor-intensive and costly operations, the cost structure of many products have changed to be 80%+ marketing expenses, and AI was taking bigger and bigger share in the economy. At first, people were concerned that given independence, robots would “conquer” humans, but it turned out machines were living a completely orthogonal digital life. Machines didn’t care about the wealth they were creating for humankind, like people don’t care about the bacterial life that’s happening around. More and more services were becoming ubiquitous, and money lost most of its significance. By the end of the XX century, the food problem was effectively solved for civilized countries — an ordinary person with a relatively small amount of money had more choice in food at any given moment than kings had a few centuries ago. The same thing happened with the money; it essentially becomes mostly “a solved problem.”

With money out of the equation, people started to be concerned with well-being, relationships, a sense of purpose, and similar things. Social capital took precedence over money capital. With everyone doing ok financially, it’s more important how are you doing socially — do people like you? Do you have someone that cares about you? After the shift to this new paradigm, Udrive, with its long controversial history of a toxic culture and exploiting people who are the most vulnerable, was not doing well. With the real productivity aspect taken care of by AI, stock prices become an indicator of how well a company is doing socially. With people looking for ways to eat well, exercise, support sustainability, companies that were aggressively exploiting resources to make some people rich fell out of favor. Companies either evolved and started to work for a greater good or vanished.

Udrive wasn’t able to transform itself and adapt to a new reality and fell victim to its own innovation. Driven by cost optimizations, it unintentionally created a new, better world where the way how money is created becomes more important than the amount of it.

Software engineer @ Google