3 ways Uber is ruining ridesharing for everybody

It's time for Uber to shape up before its customers get fed up.

 

Chris Osterndorf

Internet Culture

Published Dec 1, 2014   Updated May 30, 2021, 2:32 am CDT

No matter what option you prefer, the future of transportation is ridesharing.

Well, probably.

It’s not as if the ridesharing movement has never been criticized. But lately, it seems like all that criticism has fallen on one company. And if you guessed that company is the one with the mustaches, you guessed wrong.

It’s hard to remember the last time there was some positive press out there about Uber, the ridesharing giant that’s both at the top and the bottom of its field. Despite trying to start a price war that should’ve effectively aided its competition and driven the ridesharing world into anarchy, Uber users keep coming back, even though they are well-aware of the company’s dark side.

Nevertheless, with Lyft breathing down Uber’s neck, it would still behoove the company to make some changes. As Robert Cyran put it at the New York Times, “Small start-ups may get away with such behavior because there’s little to lose. Uber’s size and valuation mean it’s no longer excusable.”

“But here’s what else is true,” writes Slate’s Alison Griswold, “The market for ride-sharing, or on-demand car services, or whatever you want to call them, is a tricky one.” Which is why Uber’s many messes signify not only bad news for the company, but for everybody in the long run. To a certain extent, its problems with maturity are emblematic of larger problems throughout Silicon Valley

However, Uber is such a mass of contradictions, it’s in a category all its own. Think about it: What kind of company is it that gets an F from the Better Business Bureau and is also poised to be injected with $40 billion new capital?

What it comes down to is the very future of ridesharing in America. Uber may look unstoppable now, but slowly, the company’s reputation is destroying its futureand the future for any other ridesharing companies. How will people trust these services after Uber has finished taking a sledgehammer to its credibility? 

This isn’t to say that its problems are unfixable. However, for the moment, Uber appears hellbent on dismantling everything it helped create through a culture of virulently bad business practices.

1) Uber’s privacy policies are terrible.

Uber announced this week that it would be taking “disciplinary actions” against the company’s New York City general manager, Josh Mohrer, after an investigation found evidence of alleged privacy violations on his part. This comes on the heels of a BuzzFeed article that found Mohrer looking at journalist Johana Bhuiyan’s personal information without her consent on several different occasions. In fact, Mohrer supposedly told Bhuiyan that he was tracking her to her face during a meeting in NYC. 

His actions were conducted as a part of what’s being called “God View,” a function wherein Uber’s corporate elite have the power access to access the whereabouts of pretty much any of its drivers or users.  

Around the same time that Uber began investigating Mohrer, a post regarding the company’s privacy policy appeared on its blog. “Uber has a strict policy prohibiting all employees at every level from accessing a rider or driver’s data,” the article read. The catch? Several outlets noticed a provision that dictates the following rule goes out the window if the company needs to access your data “for a limited set of legitimate business purposes.” 

Since people started pointing this out, Uber announced the company has hired a new lawyer to “conduct an in-depth review and assessment of our existing data privacy program and recommend any needed enhancements so that Uber can ensure that we are a leader in the area of privacy and data protection.”

And the little cherry on top of all this: Last week, a post on Hacker News pointed out how Uber has different, less reliable privacy settings for Android.

Uber can talk about how it wants to be “a leader in the area of privacy and data protection” all it wants, but these words will ring hollow until we see a few serious shifts in the way Uber does things. Right now, trusting Uber with something as innocuous as your Spotify account almost seems a stretch.

The point of taking an Uber is supposed to be a convergence of luxury and convenience. But Americans are paranoid enough about privacy as it isgiving them even more reason to be paranoid about their digital footprint is a far cry from luxurious or convenient.

2) The company is a PR nightmare.

In another Times piece, Joe Nocera praised Uber’s product while lamenting that Uber “appears to be a company run by juveniles.” Again, this does not necessarily make its culture very different from that of plenty of other modern tech giants. But where Uber is different is that the company seems somewhat incapable of growing up, even when it tries to.

For instance, while giving a speech a few weeks ago at a Goldman Sachs event in Las Vegas, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick addressed Uber’s many recent controversies, admitting that “the company’s fast growth is responsible for a series of mistakes that have left it reeling in a PR crisis.” However, for someone whose company is going through a PR crisis, Kalanick did himself no favors by reportedly comparing Uber’s problems to those of the citizens of Ferguson, Mo. And remember, this was in a speech where he was trying to put out fires.

Not that this would be the first time one of the big brass at Uber has put its foot in its mouth. The company’s top people have a particularly bad history on Twitter, where they’ve continually gotten into belligerent and unprofessional arguments. The aforementioned Josh Mohrer is the most notorious here, having been known to harass journalists and users who dared to disagree with the company’s narrative. And even Kalanick has been known to get petty with the press, whenever he reads something he doesn’t like.

Speaking of which, Uber’s privacy and PR concerns manifested in what might have been its biggest nightmare yet this November, when it was revealed that Senior Vice President Emil Michael had suggested the idea of hiring researchers to investigate the personal lives of journalists who’ve criticized the company. 

Michael later backtracked, releasing a statement saying that he regretted these comments and that they were not emblematic of his or Uber’s larger ethos, but the damage was done. Uber had already come off as tyrannic, little monsters before this, trying to silence anyone who would so much as consider standing in its way, but with Michael’s comments, this image became all but cemented.

Elsewhere, Uber has made similarly petulant moves. For one thing, Uber has aggressively pushed its way into countries that didn’t initially want its services. And who could forget how Uber intensified its rivalry with Lyft this last August, when Uber supposedly booked and then cancelled more than 5,000 rides in an attempt to block the competition?

Slate’s Alison Griswold, who has covered Uber heavily for the site, has reasoned that perhaps Uber’s persistent ineptitude in looking like a professional organization has less to do with a malicious business approach and more to do with sheer ineptitude on the part of its PR department. Because after all, even if Uber is a shady company, you’d think that by now someone would’ve made the company realize it can’t keep screwing up so publicly.

As Griswold sees it:

Uber’s PR and management issues are very much related. Because Uber has prioritized growth, it keeps adding new cities and new local managers. Until now, it has not added new communications people at anywhere near the same pace. The consequence is that some cities have wound up empowering impulsive actors, with almost no one to keep them in check. So maybe Uber’s problem is not with privacy, or price surging manipulation, or ‘corporate evil,’ or any of the other claims that have been brought against it. Maybe Uber is suffering first and foremost from an immature culture, a handful of rash city managers, and a communications team ill-equipped to deal with them. As the saying goes, never attribute malice to that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

Some, like the Awl’s Matt Buchanan, have claimed that Uber is intentionally “being a dick,” adopting a carefree attitude as if to come off as the bad boys of Silicon Valley. But there’s a difference between being mavericks and being just plain stupid. 

3) Uber has a terrible relationship with drivers and passengers.

Over the weekend, Salon ran an essay by former Uber driver Carrie Callahan Goodman, in which she detailed her horrible experience working for the company. Between taking three weeks to process her background check, charging her $30 for “phone rental,” and battling with software that “wildly underestimates the number of minutes it takes to reach a rider,” she soon got fed up.

“Uber has lots of hidden charges and fees. However, since I was driving during ‘surge’ hours, with back-to-back riders, my hourly rate should reflect the best hourly rate one can earn, driving for Uber,” writes Callahan. “Bottom line: After subtracting all their charges and fees—plus Uber’s 20 percent—driving for Uber during surge pricing, with a constant flow of riders, pays less than $10 per hour. Then you must deduct insurance, fuel, maintenance and taxes. At least for me, driving for Uber is not worth it.”

Callahan isn’t the first Uber driver to have butted heads with their employer. In October, a story surfaced that found Uber driver Christopher Ortiz had been fired after he tweeted a link to a PandoDaily article which questioned driver safety following a robbery. Ortiz discovered what had happened in an email he got from the company after being locked out of the app for two weeks. When he reached out to Uber about this, he was told that his account had been “permanently deactivated” for making “hateful statements” about Uber on social media. 

And to add insult to injury, the email ended with Uber’s typical “UBER on!” signoff and a suggestion to “Refer your friends, earn money!” Unsurprisingly, Uber eventually reactivated Ortiz’s account and said that the whole thing was “an error by the local team,” but this was only after the story gained some traction, of course.

So by all accounts, Uber treats its drivers pretty shabbily. The company has also been known to keep new drivers off the road “to encourage surge pricing and increase fares.” This is not only bad for its drivers, but for its customers as well.

This brings us to the next step in Uber’s inadvertent plan to make everyone hate ridesharing: creating a terrible environment for passengers. Certainly, violent instances like the one referenced above, in which a driver was held at gunpoint, are incredibly disturbing. But equally disturbing are ones where riders accused their drivers of kidnapping them, or beating them with a hammer. Yes, that’s correcta hammer.

And if you think Uber is any better than its Silicon Valley peers where sexism is concerned, well, you can probably already tell where this is going. On the one hand there are seemingly minor incidents like when Uber created a promotion in Paris called “Avions de Chasse,” intended to pair users with a “hot chick” driver when they called for a ride. The whole thing was basically shut down before it could do any damage, but not before Uber got a chance to spout off offensive taglines for the promotion like: “Who said women don’t know how to drive?”

Meanwhile, more severe claims have also been leveled against the company. In July, a second driver was accused of sexually assaulting a passenger, in Washington D.C.. This news arrived a month after another driver was accused of sexual assault in Los Angeles.

The message this all amounts to is that Uber is unfair to drivers and unsafe for passengers. It’s odd, but if people were skeptical of ridesharing when the trend first began to take hold, they’ve actually become moreso over time, despite ridesharing’s rise in popularity. For those that thought taxi drivers were bad, the list of Uber-related altercations since the company’s inception is outright scary.

For now, passengers will continue to take Uber and drivers will continue to come aboard the company. But if incidents like the ones mentioned here alone keep occurring, ridesharing is no longer going to be viewed as the cool, efficient way to get around or earn a little extra cash. It’ll be viewed as a liability, for everyone involved.

Nocera finishes his Times piece by concluding: “At Uber, the inmates are running the asylum. That needs to change, while there’s still time.” And more than that, it needs to change not just for the company, but for all of us. Ridesharing shouldn’t have to be a dubious concept. Ideally, companies like Uber can exist without putting taxi services out of business, and without threatening to bring down the experience of getting from one place to another entirely. But we’re a long way from any kind of ideal, and if Uber doesn’t start to reform, then the company may end up killing the ridesharing movement in the process. 

Photo via james j8246/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Dec 1, 2014, 10:30 am CST