David Dudley is the executive editor of CityLab. He is the former editor in chief of Urbanite magazine and a former features editor for AARP: The Magazine.
Would ride-hailing be better if the driver couldn’t talk?
In a recent interview with a Lyft executive, Casey Newton of The Verge got some people very excited about something that doesn’t exist: a “zen mode” for ride-hailing.
This, Newton suggested, would be “some sort of setting in the app where you’re just able to say, ‘You know what, I’m not feeling chatty today.’” The vehicle’s driver would then be struck mute, forbidden from subjecting their passenger to small talk, creepy pickup lines, religious indoctrination efforts, or other aural irritants. It would be a Quiet Car, for someone else’s car.
The Lyft executive, Taggart Matthiesen, did not seem too enthusiastic. “At some point, we may play around with that idea,” he said, “but that’s unfortunately not a feature at this point.”
Undeterred, however, others have seized on the prospect of Zen Mode and are demanding its immediate implementation. “Could I have this now? Yesterday, maybe?” asked Rachel Kaser of The Next Web. If companies added this feature, she wrote, “the act of chatting or not becomes part of the transaction—and therefore, it won’t feel like a personal rejection of your driver’s attempt at friendliness.”
When news of Zen Mode rippled though the CityLab office (silently, of course, because all conversation is conducted through online messaging), we had many opinions. Some suggested that drivers should be capable of reversing it, to muzzle distracting passengers. Many women shared their experiences enduring skeevy behavior from male drivers; in those situations, shutting them up would clearly have been welcome. A few of us contemplated what a blanket prohibition on talking to drivers would do to the state of journalism if certain pundits lost this critical reporting tool.
Some practical questions also emerged. Could Zen Mode ding your passenger rating? What if one fellow passenger on a pooled ride fails to observe the no-talking rule? (This is the phenomenon that can make Amtrak’s Quiet Car such a tense psychological battleground.) Could you toggle on Zen Mode mid-ride when the conversation goes south, like the privacy divider that Spinal Tap raises to shut up the Sinatra-loving limo driver played by Bruno Kirby in This Is Spinal Tap?
It’s telling that Matthiesen, who’s the head of product for the company’s autonomous vehicle program, was asked to field this very human staff-customer issue: Our hunger for Zen Mode reflects what might be a growing impatience over the pace of automation. The mere suggestion of a self-driving car—the world-changing innovation that’s forever “five years away”—has already begun to dehumanize the passenger experience. Silencing the person behind the wheel is one step further on a longer continuum of erasure, one that will only end when Level 5 has been achieved and we can ride alone (as 75 percent of American commuters already do when we drive ourselves).
In the meantime, there they are, these literally totally random people who just happen to be driving (and, weirdly, actually own) the cars we need to get around in. The once-murky etiquette of driver-passenger relations has evolved considerably in a few short years. As Lyft driver/podcast host Anthony Ponce wrote in CityLab recently, “Until late 2014, Lyft actively encouraged its users to sit up front and fist-bump their drivers.“ Those zany days are gone, Ponce reported: “Many riders and drivers have grown weary of small-talk, are unsure if social interaction is expected, and default to riding in silence.” We’re not cruising around with a pal, we now understand; we’re just consuming a mobility service that—for now—requires a human operator.
The economics of the ride-hailing industry being what they are, the employers of these humans are working feverishly to kill those jobs. Developing fully self-driving vehicles is a quest that Uber founder Travis Kalanick called “basically existential” to the company in 2016. The chatty meatbags behind the steering wheel are not just getting in the way of profitability: They’re marring the frictionless personalized transportation experience we’ve been promised, in which the robotic servant you have summoned knows your ideal temperature and musical genre. We’re ready to be shuttled about in peace and solitude; we will miss our favorite rapping Uber drivers no more than we now mourn elevator operators or video-store clerks.
This should go without saying, but those who activate Zen Mode are unlikely to be doing so in order to engage in the meditative practices associated with the Buddhist faith. They will be futzing around on their phones, talking to real-life or virtual friends, and otherwise indulging in what parents know as screen time. They’ll do all the things we do when we want to be somewhere else. The default behavior on public transit is already Total Silence While Enrobed in Technology, and that’s what we’re beginning to expect of ride-hailing as well. As this mode becomes more transit-like (in its mores, if not its efficiencies), entering a strange vehicle and expecting a ritualistic exchange of pleasantries with whoever’s in there will be like picking up a ringing phone or paying in cash—one of those 20th century social habits that slides out of our lives, unnoticed, until it’s almost gone.
Whether you find this tragic or welcome may depend on age, gender, fondness for Thomas Friedman’s collected works, and other factors. But it’s hard not see the prospect of Zen Mode as one more more silent step on a journey toward a world where physical proximity with fellow citizens carries diminishing expectations for social interaction. And that’s too bad, because that’s sort of what cities are for.