This week, a self-driving truck, operated by Uber-owned Otto, drove 120 miles in Colorado to deliver 2,000 cases of Budweiser.
It’s a marketing stunt, for sure. But the barreling truck carrying 51,744 cans of beer labeled with Otto is quite symbolic of Uber’s past, present and future. If there’s one industry (other than taxicabs) that has contributed to the rise and success of ride-hailing companies, it’s alcohol.
When I traveled to Pittsburgh to test Uber’s self-driving cars in August, I took a few regular Uber rides to chat with drivers about their experiences. Two things were clear: They didn’t believe that their jobs as drivers were in jeopardy anytime soon, and they were quick to mention their frequent confrontations with drunk passengers.
“Usually after midnight is when things get weird. Riders trying to get in the wrong vehicle. Some have had too much. Some are just really talkative,” one driver told me. About half of his riders each weekend are intoxicated, he said.
Back in New York City, the situation isn’t so different. “Last Friday/Saturday morning, I stopped a few blocks before a guy’s house so he could open the door and throw up,” another Uber driver said. “I cannot complain. Whenever I see those people I just want them to let me know before.”
Alcohol has, in a way, fueled the rise of the ride-hailing industry. In cities where public transportation isn’t always accessible and taxis can be expensive and hard to come by, companies like Uber have created an alternative.
The future of Uber looks somewhat different. It not only involves the transportation of intoxicated passengers but also the delivery of intoxicating beverages, and both of those experiences may not involve a driver.
The safer, lucrative bet
Beyond my own anecdotal examples, Uber and its biggest U.S.-based competitor Lyft are quite aware of the tie between alcohol consumption and ride-hailing.
One of Lyft’s early use cases centered on a night out, the company’s vice president of partnerships, Oliver Hsiang, told Mashable in September.
For the last few years, Uber and Lyft have partnered with companies like Anheuser-Busch and organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) to advocate on behalf of “don’t drink and drive.”
Just last month, Lyft and Anheuser-Busch partnered to grant vouchers for free rides. They also offered discounted rides at South by Southwest in Austin and Budweiser’s Made in America music festival in Philadelphia this year, for example.
All of these programs demonstrate our on-going commitment to spreading the message and conversation about responsible drinking and getting home safely,” Katja Zastrow, vice president of corporate social responsibility at Anheuser-Busch, said in a statement to Mashable.
“Drunk driving is a really important issue for us. We think that Lyft is also a solution to this,” Hsiang told Mashable last month.
Research on whether these ride-hailing companies are truly having an impact is sparse and inconsistent. A study from the University of Southern California and Oxford University, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, found that the presence of Uber in an metropolitan area did not affect the number of traffic fatalities.
A 2015 study commissioned by MADD and Uber (so take that as you will) did identify an “Uber effect,” as in the number of drunk driving arrests decreased in Seattle by 10 percent in the year following Uber’s arrival. It also identified that requests made in Pittsburgh coincide with when bars close and Uber ridership in Miami peaks at the same times as drunk-driving related crashes.
In the same study, Uber and MADD reported that 78 percent of those surveyed said “since Uber launched in their city, their friends are less likely to drive after drinking.”
Regardless of the data’s accuracy, MADD embraces Uber and other ride-hailing companies. At MADD, we support any kind of transportation option that will give people more choices to make the right decision and get home,” JT Griffin, MADD’s chief government affairs officer, told Mashable. “We really feel like ride-sharing is another tool in the toolkit.”
The touch of Uber on beer also extends to delivery. Before Otto was transporting beers across Colorado, alcohol delivery had emerged as a big business opportunity. The “Uber for X” startup trend had emerged and soon came “Uber for alcohol,” with companies like Minibar, Drizly, Thirstie and Saucey, to name a few.
“Consumers are looking for convenience now more than ever. From Drizly to Uber, consumers can get what they want, when they want it at the touch of a button,” Kerin Horgan, Drizly’s head of public relations, wrote to Mashable in an email.
Uber’s own delivery service UberEATS has yet to take on alcohol delivery. But Otto, as demonstrated this week, is in the business of large-scale delivery. Uber opened its long-haul trucking division Uber Freight to carriers and shippers Tuesday.
“Our partnership with Anheuser-Busch is just beginning, and our companies are excited to transform commercial transportation together,” Otto wrote in a blog post.
While Otto did not share any details about future tests or deliveries, it did say this was the next step towards our vision for a safe and productive future across our highways.”
In the not-so-distant future, autonomous vehicles may fuel a rise in cheaper delivery and more alcohol consumption. A Morgan Stanley study from August, The Huffington Post reported, estimated that if each member of the global drinking population 2.1 billion people consume one more drink, the global market alcohol consumption could grow by $31 billion.
Autonomous vehicles that one day could eliminate the need for coherency while driving “could drive more on premise consumption (more last call drinks), off premise consumption (drinks to go Buffalo Wild Wings is already studying this opportunity) and over time even the opportunity for the potential for alcohol sales from drive thru,” Morgan Stanley wrote in its report.
MADD has kept itself a part of the conversation of self-driving, working with technology companies, like Google and Uber, and the Department of Transportation.
For autonomous vehicles of the future, Griffin of MADD said the organization is pushing to implement the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS). The technology, still in testing, detects a driver’s blood alcohol level and will not let the car operate if it’s above the legal limit. For the case of an autonomous car, it could give full control over to the car.
“As long as vehicles have a steering wheel then there needs to be some sort of system that these cars can’t be driven drunk,” Griffin said. “I can envision a day where if you have the DADSS system in your car and your car says this person is too intoxicated to drive and the car says, ‘I’m going to take you home.'”