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Gig Workers Are Being Stabbed, Stoned, and Abused in India

Gig Workers Are Being Stabbed, Stoned, and Abused in India

“After Covid, [cab-hailing platforms] don’t have any management. They have fired many employees. There aren’t many staffers to help out [drivers on ground]. Who do we take these issues to?” Matthew says. “At least before, there was a concerned office [to address disputes], now there is no concerned office. Everything is online.” 

Ola did not respond to questions sent by WIRED. 

Rathi from CIS says that a responsive grievance mechanism for gig workers is “completely absent” and continues to be “one of the top three demands” that workers have. “The firms are able to provide more responsive services to customers,” he says. “The workers are as important if not more [than customers], and they should be able to extend the same kind of mechanisms, practices, and policies to workers.”

Because workers are often in precarious economic situations and have no jobs to fall back on, being mugged or attacked has a huge impact on their ability to earn. 

Some of the platforms do offer limited insurance for gig workers, including for accidents. However, these don’t necessarily provide much respite, according to Aditi Surie, a senior consultant at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, a research organization based in Bangalore, who has studied the schemes. Her research showed that making a claim against the platform-provided insurance is a long and laborious process. “So even if you have grievous bodily harm, there are lots of steps that prevent anyone from making use of any insurance or offering from the platform,” Surie says. “So, if you’re in a road accident, for example, the police have to get involved. Now finding the right police station, contacting your insurance in time, getting the ambulance there—these are all things that platforms say they try and help with but there is nothing there—which again then falls back on the worker.”

Uber spokesperson Tomar says that the company gave Devi financial support to cover her loss of earnings as a result of the incident, and that the company “helped her claim her medical expenses under Uber’s on-trip insurance policy, which covers all drivers on the app.” Devi claims that both the insurance money and Uber’s financial support for her loss of earnings haven’t made it into her bank account.

“Uber is deeply committed to the safety of drivers on the Uber app,” Tomar says. “Uber drivers have many of the same transparency and accountability features that riders do, such as feedback and ratings for every trip, GPS tracking, an emergency button, and shared trip feature.”

In Delhi, Devi has had enough of Uber, which she says isn’t safe or profitable enough to justify the risks. Devi, who previously worked at a hospital for a meager salary, learned to drive just so she could start working for Uber, and began driving for the platform in 2019. A single mother, she had to find work to support her two children. “That time, many women around me told me that Uber is a good option and the earnings are good,” she says. “They did not even deduct high commissions back then.”

The first time she complained to Uber was in 2020, when a customer verbally attacked her. “He was hurling abuses at me. I had complained against the customer then, but Uber didn’t do anything about it,” said Devi. “Uber never does anything when a driver complains. But even a small complaint against a driver means that they will block their account.”

At the time, she remembers spending 500 rupees ($6.08) on fuel each day but taking home 2,000 rupees ($24.39) in earnings. But lately she says the fuel costs have gone up to 700 rupees a day, while her earnings have fallen to less than 1,000 rupees.

Devi is upset that despite the life-threatening incident she experienced, the only calls she’s received from Uber are about when she will resume driving again, because she has been offline since January. She says, fuming, she has blocked those numbers. “I am worried about my children—what if something like this happens again? So I need to think really hard before taking the next steps,” she says. “For now I don’t intend to go back to driving for Uber.” 

(Reporting for this story was supported by the Pulitzer Center’s AI Accountability Network.)

The Mystery Vehicle at the Heart of Tesla’s New Master Plan

The Mystery Vehicle at the Heart of Tesla’s New Master Plan

Nearly four hours into Tesla’s marathon Investor Day, someone in the audience tried again to bring Elon Musk, the Tesla (and Twitter and SpaceX) CEO back to the present day. From a stage at the Gigafactory in Austin, Texas, Musk had announced an ambitious “Master Plan 3” to save the world. For $10 trillion in manufacturing investment, Musk said, the world could move wholesale to a renewable electricity grid, powering electric cars, planes, and ships.

“Earth can and will move to a sustainable energy economy, and will do so in your lifetime,” Musk proclaimed. More details will be revealed in a forthcoming white paper, he said.  But the presentation was short on specifics on the one part of the electric transition that is in Tesla’s gift: the next-generation vehicle it has been teasing for years, promising something that is more affordable, more efficient, and more efficiently built than anything in its current lineup. The vehicle, or group of vehicles, will be crucial to hitting Tesla’s goal of selling 20 million vehicles in 2030; it sold 1.3 million in 2022.

What, an investor asked the company’s executives, would that vehicle be? Musk declined to share. “We’d be jumping the gun if we answered your question,” he said, explaining that the company would hold a separate event to roll out the mystery vehicle somewhere down the line. Slides shown during the presentation just showed images of car-shaped forms under gray sheets.

Instead, 17 company executives shared some tidbits on the vehicle during a round robin of presentations focusing on everything from design to supply chains to manufacturing to environmental impacts and legal affairs. 

The next-generation vehicle won’t be just one car, but an approach to building vehicles focusing on “affordability and desirability,” said Lars Moravy, Tesla’s vice president of vehicle engineering. It will be built at a new factory near Monterrey, Mexico, which was announced at the event Wednesday and will be Tesla’s sixth battery and electric vehicle plant. Executives said the next-gen vehicle would have a 40 percent smaller manufacturing footprint and would cut production costs by 50 percent. 

Wall Street appears to have expected a bit more detail. By Thursday morning, the company’s stock price was down 5 percent. 

“The much-anticipated theme of Master Plan 3 left me with more questions than answers,” Gene Munster, managing partner at Deepwater Asset Management, said in a note to investors.

“Musk and company failed to put the cherry on top—an actual look at a lower-priced Tesla, if only just conceptually,” Jessica Caldwell, executive director of insights at Edmunds, an auto industry research firm, said in an emailed commentary. 

A truly affordable electric car has long been a target for the company. Tesla’s first Master Plan—published in 2006, before Musk was CEO—was simple but, at the time, radical: Build an electric sports car, and use that money to build cheaper and cheaper electric cars. The company touted its second electric sedan, the Model 3, as the battery-powered ride for the masses, but the car only sold at its target price of $35,000 for a limited time. Its base model now sells for $43,000. In the meantime, legacy automakers inspired by Tesla’s vision have stepped into the gap: The Chevrolet Bolt today starts at $26,500, and the Nissan Leaf at $28,000. 

A second Master Plan, published in 2016, promised self-driving cars and shared robotaxis, and it promoted the carmaker’s (now struggling) solar panel business. The robots on wheels haven’t shown up yet—though Wednesday’s events did include a cameo from Optimus, a still-clunky prototype of a humanoid robot also being built by Tesla.

Musk rarely meets his self-imposed deadlines, but he’s always excelled at marshaling others to his cause with grand pronouncements and sprawling visions. Now he’s looking beyond cars, and even robots. “I really want today to be not only about investors who own Tesla stock, but anyone who is an investor in Earth,” he said.

California Voted for Cheaper Uber Rides. It May Have Hurt Drivers

California Voted for Cheaper Uber Rides. It May Have Hurt Drivers

In 2020, California voters approved Proposition 22, a law that app-based companies including Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash said would improve worker conditions while keeping rides and deliveries cheap and abundant for consumers. But a report published today suggests that rideshare drivers in the state have instead seen their effective hourly wage decline compared to what it would have been before the law took force.

The study by PolicyLink, a progressive research and advocacy organization, and Rideshare Drivers United, a California driver advocacy group, found that after rideshare drivers in the state pay for costs associated with doing business—including gas and vehicle wear and tear—they make a hourly wage of $6.20, well below California’s minimum wage of $15 an hour. The researchers calculate that if drivers were made employees rather than independent contractors, they could make an additional $11 per hour.

“Driving has only gotten more difficult since Proposition 22 passed,” says Vitali Konstantinov, who started driving for rideshare companies in the San Diego area in 2018 and is a member of Rideshare Drivers United. “Although we are called independent contractors, we have no ability to negotiate our contracts, and the companies can change our terms at any time. We need labor rights extended to app-deployed workers.”

Uber spokesperson Zahid Arab wrote in a statement that the study was “deeply flawed,” saying the company’s own data shows that tens of thousands of California drivers earned $30 per hour on the dates studied by the research team, although Uber’s figure does not account for driver expenses. Lyft spokesperson Shadawn Reddick-Smith said the report was “untethered to the experience of drivers in California.”

In 2020, Uber, Lyft, and other app-based delivery companies promoted Proposition 22 as a way for California consumers and workers to have their cake and eat it, too. At the time, a new state law targeted at the gig economy, AB5, sought to transform app-based workers from independent contractors into employees, with all the workers’ rights attached to that status—health care, workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance. The law was premised on the idea that the companies had too much control over workers, their wages, and their relationships with customers for them to be considered independent contractors.

But for the Big Gig companies, that change would have come at the cost of hundreds of millions dollars annually, per one estimate. The companies argued they would struggle to keep operating if forced to treat drivers as employees, that drivers would lose the ability to set their own schedules, and that rides would become scarce and expensive. The companies, including Uber, Lyft, Instacart, and DoorDash, launched Prop 22 in an attempt to carve out an exemption for workers driving and delivering on app-based platforms.

Under Proposition 22, which took force in 2021, rideshare drivers continue to be independent contractors. They receive a guaranteed rate of 30 cents per mile, and at least 120 percent of the local minimum wage, not including time and miles driven between rides as drivers wait for their next fares, which Uber has said account for 30 percent of drivers’ miles while on the app. Drivers receive some accident insurance and workers’ compensation, and they can also qualify for a health care subsidy, although previous research by PolicyLink suggests just 10 percent of California drivers have used the subsidy, in some cases because they don’t work enough hours to qualify.

A US Rail Strike Was Averted—but the Crisis Is Far From Over

A US Rail Strike Was Averted—but the Crisis Is Far From Over

In the early hours of Thursday morning, major US freight railroad companies reached a tentative agreement with unions, narrowly averting a nationwide rail shutdown less than 24 hours before a strike deadline. A work stoppage would have heaped devastating consequences on the nation’s economy and supply chain, nearly 30 percent of which relies on rail. Even a near miss had some impact. Long-distance Amtrak passenger services, which use freight tracks, and hazardous materials shipments are now being restored after railroads suspended them to prevent people or cargo becoming stranded by a strike.

The tentative agreement, to be voted on by union members, came through talks brokered by the Biden administration. It scrambled this week to avoid a shutdown that would have caused major disruption and worsened inflation by restricting the supply of crucial goods and driving up shipping costs. Rail unions and the railroad industry association released statements Thursday welcoming the deal. But freight rail service has been unreliable since long before this week’s standoff, and trade groups representing rail customers say much work remains to restore it to acceptable levels.

Just two-thirds of trains were arriving within 24 hours of their scheduled time this spring, down from 85 percent pre-pandemic, forcing rail customers to suspend business or—grimly—consider euthanizing their starving chickens. Scott Jensen, a spokesperson for the American Chemistry Council, whose members depend on rail to ship chemicals, called the latest shutdown threat “another ugly chapter in this long saga of freight rail issues.”

Although Thursday’s agreement was lauded by companies dependent on rail freight, the ACC, the National Grain and Feed Association, and other trade groups also argue that further reforms to the rail industry are needed. Competition has dwindled as service concentrated among a handful of big railroads, which slashed their combined workforce by 29 percent over the past six years. Rail customers have asked lawmakers and rail regulators to intervene. Suggestions include federal minimum service standards, including penalties for leaving loaded cars sitting in rail yards for long periods, and a rule that would allow customers to move cargo to another service provider at certain interchanges, to work around the fact that many customers are captive to a single carrier.

Major US freight railroads made deep staff cuts in recent years as part of an effort to implement a leaner, more profitable operating model called Precision Scheduled Railroading. Profits have indeed soared—two of the largest freight carriers, Union Pacific and BNSF, owned by Warren Buffett, broke records last year. But after many workers decided not to return to the rail industry after pandemic furloughs, a staffing shortage tipped the network into crisis. At federal hearings this spring, rail customers complained about suffering their worst ever service levels from a network that had been stripped of its resiliency.

Many freight rail jobs have always involved erratic schedules and long stretches away from home, but workers complained that the leaner operations saddled them with still longer hours, higher injury rates, and less predictable schedules. Many workers received no sick leave and were penalized for taking time off outside of their vacation time, which averaged three weeks a year, or holiday and personal time, which reached 14 days a year for the most senior employees.

GM’s Cruise Recalls Self-Driving Software Involved in June Crash

GM’s Cruise Recalls Self-Driving Software Involved in June Crash

Autonomous driving company Cruise and US regulators said on Thursday that the General Motors subsidiary had recalled software deployed on 80 vehicles after a June crash in San Francisco involving a Cruise car operating autonomously injured two people. The incident occurred one day after the state of California granted Cruise a permit to start a commercial driverless ride-hail service in the state. The flawed software was updated by early July, Cruise said in a filing with the US National Highway Traffic Safety Agency.

The crash occurred when a Cruise vehicle attempting to make an unprotected left turn across a two-lane street was struck by a car traveling in the opposite direction that was speeding in a turn lane. Cruise said in its NHTSA filing that its software had predicted that the other car would turn right, and determined that it was necessary to brake hard in the midst of its own vehicle’s left turn to avoid a front-end collision. But the other vehicle continued straight through the intersection, T-boning the now stationary Cruise car.

At least one person in the speeding vehicle and one Cruise employee riding in the autonomous vehicle were treated for injuries, according to a report that Cruise submitted to the California Department of Motor Vehicles in June. Cruise responded to the incident by putting its robot cars on a tighter leash until their software was updated. The company reduced the area of San Francisco the vehicles operated in, and barred them from making left turns altogether.

Cruise said in its NHTSA filing that the software update improves its self-driving software’s predictions, especially in situations like that which led to the crash. The company said it has determined that if the vehicle involved in the June 3 incident had been running the current software, no crash would have occurred.

The recall is just the NHTSA’s second to involve fully self-driving software. In March, the self-driving developer recalled three self-driving vehicles after it found a software error caused the system to shut down unexpectedly while its vehicles were in motion. The company said all affected vehicles were repaired. The increasing amount of software in vehicles means more and more vehicle recalls—even among human-driven cars—can be accomplished through over-the-air updates.

In a written statement on the Cruise recall, NHTSA head Steven Cliff said the agency continues to investigate crashes involving self-driving vehicles and will “ensure that vehicle manufacturers and developers prioritize the safety of pedestrians, bicyclists, and other vulnerable road users.” Cruise met with NHTSA officials multiple times to discuss the crash, according to the recall filing.

Cruise spokesperson Hannah Lindow said in a written statement that the software issue has been resolved. “Cruise AVs are even better equipped to prevent this singular, exceptional event,” Lindow wrote. Right now, Cruise’s service operates in 70 percent of the city between 10 pm and 6 am, except during rain or fog. Interested riders must apply to use the service. The robots can make left turns again.