Unpacked for Friday, December 16th, 2016

Uber Launches Self-Driving Cars in San Francisco – by Jan Dawson

Uber announced a trial of self-driving cars in San Francisco, one of its most important markets and its second trial after a debut in Pittsburgh in September. The first day of the trial saw both footage of one of the cars running a red light and a rebuke from the California Department of Motor Vehicles — Uber had failed to obtain permission to run the trial.

Uber’s San Francisco launch is an important one. It’s one of the most influential markets among those who track companies like Uber and write about them for the general public. It will likely be the first time many would-be early adopters of self-driving technology have a chance to experience it firsthand, in a real-world driving situation, and could expose more people to the technology and its current state of readiness than would otherwise be the case.

But there’s the problem. Uber has a well-earned reputation for a cavalier attitude towards regulations. But the regulations it’s flaunted in the past have been largely those dealing with running taxi services. Uber has been able to successfully argue it brings significant benefits and, arguably, a safer taxi service than existing ones given the whole transaction is tracked electronically, with both riders and drivers registered with the service. As such, it’s been able to get actual and potential users on board as advocates and put significant pressure on local authorities to allow it to operate, despite whatever restrictions might otherwise be in place.

What Uber is doing in San Francisco risks both playing up to its reputation and damaging it in a very serious way. Whereas Uber has been able to argue its previous disregard for regulation was either safety-neutral or even positive for safety, autonomous driving brings real safety risks in the early stages relative to driver-controlled cars. The fact one of its cars was captured on video running a red light should be – ahem – a red flag. It appears this particular car was driven by a human driver at the time and Uber has been spectacularly bold in suggesting this incident should be evidence of the need for autonomous cars.

The problem is Uber isn’t currently allowing the authorities access to all the data it captures on how these self-driving cars perform. Yes, this car was allegedly piloted by a human being as it broke the law but we have to take Uber’s word for that. It won’t be sharing any information with the DMV or the citizens of San Francisco about the accidents its cars are involved in. It’s not as if the DMV would have prevented Uber from running the trial if it sought permission. It’s this reluctance to share data with the government of California that seems to be at the root of Uber’s reticence but it shouldn’t be allowed to flaunt regulations in this way and the DMV is rightly coming down hard.

The downside here could affect not just Uber but the citizens of San Francisco – passengers, pedestrians, and fellow drivers – and other companies pursuing self-driving car technology. If Uber takes too many risks, not only could it endanger human life, but it could affect the reputation of autonomous car technology overall, which could set back what should ultimately be a technology that makes hundreds of millions of people safer over the coming years. I’ve generally been somewhat ambivalent about Uber’s regulatory strategy but this seems a clear-cut case of going too far.

Wynn in Vegas to Put Amazon Echo’s in Every Room – by Ben Bajarin

Earlier this week, the Amazon Echo got an interesting boost from the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas. My experience with a number of high-end hotels in Vegas has shown me they are very aggressive with using new technology. Vegas was the first place I experienced concierge bots, where you can interact via text messaging with a bot that will make reservations, order food, help you find things to do, etc., all automated and personalized. So it isn’t surprising they are also going to push the limits of room automation. In this case, by adopting voice-first computing experiences in rooms and eventually throughout their hotel. In fact, I’d wager Las Vegas will increasingly become a place where you can go and experience the future.

According to the Wynn statement:

Alexa at Wynn Las Vegas will be able to do things like control lights, temperature, drapes, and the television, as well as access more than 6,000 skills in the Amazon skills marketplace. More features may be added in the future, including a Wynn Las Vegas personal assistant.

It seems as though these devices will be pre-configured. While not irrelevant, the Echo won’t be personalized for me and I’d find it unlikely they would ask me to set up Alexa to my account when I get to the room. Also, not everyone has a Prime account. Perhaps the Wynn has a master account or a deal with Amazon so, when a person enters the room, Alexa can play music and use the services tied to a master account. This is a really interesting move, both for the Wynn but also for Amazon to get people, especially wealthy people who are the profile that stays at the Wynn, to get used to a voice-automated experience.

My view on this has to do with consumer adoption. This is a great play for Amazon to get people to buy into the direction they want to go with Echo and the Alexa assistant. Consumers adopt solutions to pain points quickly and new experiences SLOWLY. The only way to get a new experience adopted is to actually experience it. Examples like this are great ways to get people to experience the value proposition of the Echo for all it can and, increasingly, will be able to do.

I can see more examples like this coming, not just from Vegas but from many consumer retail experiences where these sorts of implementations increase the customer experience dramatically. While Amazon can continue to play here, so can Google and Microsoft and I would expect all of those companies to be aggressive in going after these more commercial accounts.

One area to watch, however, is how they deal with privacy. Reports have come out saying the Echo and Google Home are recording your voice and storing it. This is likely due to both companies are trying to build user profiles to sell ads or services against. This is less useful in public environments but I still think there will need to be clear privacy boundaries in situations where a voice/listening device is in your hotel room. Especially a hotel room in Vegas where, you know, “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas”?

Furthermore, the demographic I mentioned is a typical Wynn customer who has money and skews older and is the exact profile that also tends to be much more concerned about security and privacy than your Regular Joe. All the more reason why the privacy elements of this need to be absolutely clear or it will go nowhere.

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Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio

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