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Who’s gonna clean up that self-driving car?

Here’s a question I hadn’t pondered before.

Who will clean self-driving vehicles?

I found myself wondering this recently as my son and I tidied the family car after a road trip. We’d been driving for only five hours, but we had produced two grocery bags of trash: water bottles, parking stubs, wrappers from lunchtime hoagies, reading material, a roll of Scotch tape, and a ping-pong ball among other miscellany that had accumulated over the short time. It wasn’t unusual. In my family, I’m the one who remembers to clean out the car, so I’m all too familiar with the volume and medley of mess that can be generated in vehicle regularly used by adults and kids.

Yet with companies like Uber, Waymo, and Lyft planning to launch their first generation of self-driving cars as shared taxis, it’s not yet clear who or what will be there to clean up the half-drunk Starbucks cup, wipe down the mystery stickiness on the seat, or handle even less hygienic situations. It’s not just a trivial matter: it’s an issue of sanitation and rider well-being—one more pressing for future users than you might imagine.

Consider the many dimensions of mess. As I thought about mess in cars, I wasn’t just thinking about cleaning up the slightly gross piece of lettuce from my son’s hoagie that had fallen on the floor mats. I was thinking about cleaning up an even grosser kind of mess—the kind that you make if you are carsick.

[…]

I spoke with Molly Nix, the UX lead for self-driving Uber cars, and one of only two product designers working on what the company deems the “self-driving Uber human experience,” which includes everything from the app interface to the logistics of motion sickness. As it turns out, Uber’s haptic feedback technology might not become reality. Nix explained that the patent is a reflection of the kinds of things the Uber team is thinking about, but that, “It’s important to remember there is such a thing as overengineering a solution to a problem like motion sickness,” she said. “Nothing beats windows.” Staring outside may be the best remedy for passengers, and choosing when you need to open a window may be better than relying on a hyperdesigned haptic feedback system giving you bursts of air.

But even less thought seems to have been put into cleaning. When I asked Nix what would happen if someone made a call on a porcelain telephone in a self-driving car, she declined to answer. I asked if she and her team talk about it at the office. She again declined to answer. What will any kind of self-driving car garbage cleanup look like in reality? “We are still envisioning what it might look like,” said Nix.

Sarah Abboud, an Uber spokesperson, said that the company doesn’t have a plan for dealing with the aftermath of people getting sick or making other serious messes in self-driving cars, in part because the vehicles Uber’s testing now still have backup human drivers. “Since we have an operator in the car, we have not really explored exactly what that looks like,” Abboud said. She added she imagines that such messes would probably be handled in the same way the company plans to handle general cleaning: dispatching the car to a facility for a human to clean it and get it back on the road. There are currently two operation centers that clean the driverless cars Uber is testing, one in Phoenix and one outside Pittsburgh. Perhaps Uber would create more of those, Abboud suggested.

The same seems to hold for other companies. Waymo, for example, has partnered with rental car titan Avis for routine maintenance of its self-driving vehicles in Phoenix—though the few available details a Waymo spokesperson sent to me simply suggest that cars will “need to be charged and refueled, cleaned, and presentable for riders.” The overview did not include information about how, exactly, this happens. (Lyft did not respond to a request for comment on the cleaning issue.)

It’s possible that companies could program cars to return to a home base for upkeep after every ride. But it’s an unlikely solution considering the potential for wasted time, wasted energy, and increased congestion. Instead, as of now, solutions still seem to rely on human intervention. Someone will likely need to alert Uber or Waymo to any mess in a car. Then someone will need to clean it. (No Roombas for car interiors yet.) Abboud alluded to a potential mechanism that might help Uber’s systems identify such messes in the future, but wouldn’t say if that would be a video camera inside the car or something else. “We don’t really have that figured out yet,” she said.

There are other categories of mess that will surely appear in the self-driving cars of the future, some of which you won’t be able to get out of your head once you’ve been forced to think about them. I apologize in advance, but these are the questions we must grapple with. Self-driving cars are supposedly going to eliminate traffic and provide a superior option to mass transit and car ownership, but not if everyone is grossed out by the user experience. If your response to that is “well, buses and rail cars are often dirty, too”, then my response to you is “yes, and that’s one big reason why many people who could use transit choose not to”. There’s more to this than just engineering, and if the companies that are vying to bring us this future don’t solve these other problems, they’re in for an unpleasant surprise.

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6 Comments

  1. voter_worker says:

    It’s about time this issue gets some discussion. I hadn’t thought of sex workers using the vehicles as a workplace. It should be obvious that some customers will use them for sexual activities of the non-commercial variety. Customers are going to be mighty turned off by the mere suspicion that they are being exposed to sexual residues. A few other messes were left out of the article: drug paraphanalia, used diapers, doggy bags from that walk in the park with Fido, grafittti, etc. The article hints that the tech wizards are behind the eight ball on this, with unknown ramifications for the viability of the business model.

  2. Dan says:

    I don’t have any particular insight into how you’d solve this problem, but consider that every car rental company (Avis, Hertz, National, etc.) has to deal with this very problem. Somehow, every time I rent a car at the airport, it’s always clean. I think I once returned a car because it stunk of cigarette smoke. I’ve returned cars for mechanical issues far more often than stink/mess issues.

    For a car rental company, every car presumably passes through some degree of inspection from when you drop it off and the next customer picks it up. For a service like Zipcar, where there isn’t a professional inspection between drivers, they instead rely on drivers to self-inspect a car and report any damage or mess (https://support.zipcar.com/hc/en-us/articles/212543127-Report-Damage-and-inspect-the-car-). That’s pretty much what would be necessary with a self-driving car service, although you could imagine giving the driver some way to say “oh, sorry, I made a mess and somebody else shouldn’t drive this until it goes back to the home base.”

    You’d probably improve this with some degree of “gamification”. If driver N makes a mess and doesn’t report it, then driver N+1 reports the previous driver, you penalize driver N. Conversely, if driver N self-reports, you give them only half a penalty. Or flip it around and driver N gains “happy points” if driver N+1 finds the car clean and undamaged. Same basic mechanism.

  3. Dan – Sure, but having automated cars return after every use to a central location for inspection and cleaning before being redeployed will add a ton to the overhead costs of this venture. The idea for an automated vehicle rideshare service is that it would be cheap, cheap enough to serve as a replacement for vehicle ownership. What are the effect on the business model for such a venture if this needs to be factored in? I surely don’t know, but you’d think the businesses themselves might give it some more thought.

  4. N.M. Horwitz says:

    The UberDudeBros who so sententiously and assuredly pontificate that self-driving cars will eliminate car ownership are misguided.

    People are selfish and they like Owning Stuff. It’s fun to Own Stuff. It’s why most folks who can afford a washing machine and dryer spend large sums of money purchasing and maintaining them, rather than the cheaper option of laundromats or even app-based services that pick up clothes at your doorstep and return them. Still the mighty washing machine owner experience lives on.

  5. C.L. says:

    @Voter Worker… I don’t see anyone having a problem with renting a hotel room after multiple instances of sexual escapades having occurred behind its doors. Also, anyone remember just how uncomfortable sex in a car even is?

    @N M Horowitz. You forgot to mention the folks who own multiple firearms…just to own multiple firearms. One or two will do the trick, but why not own fifty ?

  6. voter_worker says:

    @C.L. I don’t book hotels that don’t have housekeeping and good reviews. Maybe Yelp or some other rating service will hold their feet to the fire on sanitation.