“Blame the Driver” – Uber Attitude Problems

I vowed never to complain about Brussels traffic after I visited Istanbul. The moves my cab driver made to get me to the airport in time included reversing in high-speed against on-coming traffic on the kerb of a highway. Traffic and congestion is a real problem for many cities. With safety steadily improving and pollution decreasing, congestion is the next barrier for the automotive industry. Flying cars have been a popular daydream since the 1950s, but more realistically, digital technology can help use existing streets and roads more efficiently. Against that backdrop, it’s great to see businesses and governments experimenting with new approaches: self-driving cars, ride-shares, real-time traffic updates, seamless mobility systems. A forerunner in this field is of course Uber. Much to the frustration of regular taxi drivers, it’s driver-service become very popular very quick and is often considered the highest valued “start-up”. Netopia has been critical of Uber because it refuses to take responsibility as a transport company, rather thinking of itself as a technology company – the debatable logic being that if you’re “just a technology company” you have no responsibility for what users do, let alone regulation. This has been the trump card, not only for the Googles and Facebooks of Silicon Valley but also internet access providers all over the world to avoid difficult responsibility issues. Uber may be the one that has taken this “look no hands” approach the farthest.

On New Year’s Eve 2013, a six-year old girl was hit and killed by an Uber driver in San Francisco. Uber accepted to no responsibility for the accident as the driver was between fares. It’s hard to imagine a transport company get away with something like that, whether it would be bus, taxi, limo or truck. Rather, such a company would be expected to compensate the family from its corporate insurance. Uber blamed the driver.

In December 2016, a self-driving Uber experimental vehicle ran six red lights in San Francisco. Uber’s response? Blame the driver, not the software but the human who allegedly was operating the vehicle at the moment of one of the incidents. The California Department of Motor Vehicles revoked Uber’s permit to test self-driving cars, and the company moved the experiments to Arizona (which may or may not have fewer red lights).

2017 started with a new flavor of headache for Uber, when former employee Susan Fowler articulated her experiences of sexual harassment in the Uber workplace. This inspired others to step forward and give similar testimony. Take a wild guess whether Uber acted responsibly when such problems were first brought up internally, or was “simply brushed aside and swept under the carpet of collective Uber suffering”. This added to the #DeleteUber-trend in social media (which started in January as a protest against a perceived attempt by Uber to profit from a protest against suggested immigration restrictions – a different [and long] story, start here) where riders took stands in social media and moving to other suppliers. Not a case of blaming the driver, but another example of failure to take proper responsibility.

If this were not enough, a video leaked last month were Uber CEO Travis Kalanick argues with an Uber driver over falling fares. Exiting the car, Kalanick says “Some people don’t like to take responsibility for their own shit. They blame everything in their life on somebody else. Good luck!” The irony of course is that this is the exact method that Uber has always applied. Blame everything on somebody else.

Kalanick later pledged to get leadership help but it may not be the leadership skills that are lacking but the whole identity of the company.

Netopia agrees with much of Uber’s analysis of the world’s transport problems. These examples show clearly that if they are to be resolved, it needs to be done with a completely different attitude.

UPDATE: On Friday March 25th, an autonomous Uber vehicle was involved in, but not cause of, a crash in Tempe, Arizona. Autonomous drive tests have been suspended pending investigation. The question is not that experimental vehicles crash – of course they will crash sometimes, just like new airplanes or computers for that matter. The question is how the company deals with crashes. Here is a good opportunity to do right. https://twitter.com/fresconews/status/845538056031649793