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If Uber can’t fix its safety problems, it might spell the end of the sharing economy, not just the controversial rideshare company.
Uber has been in the news a great deal lately, and much of the news hasn’t been good. The ride-sharing app and darling of the sharing economy is showing its dark side, and that side is dark indeed, with drivers hitting passengers, kidnapping them, and being accused of sexually assaulting them. It’s clear that Uber needs to be fixed, and quickly, if it’s going to remain sustainable, and other ridesharing programs need to learn from Uber’s mistakes.
The company is already losing fans thanks to surge pricing and possibly illegal and certainly questionable activities when it comes to expanding to cities with existing taxi and car services, but these issues may pale in the face of the fact that Uber could be fundamentally unsafe. When customers start expressing worries about their personal safety on a service, it’s time to start considering serious reforms; and no, tacking on a $1 safety surcharge isn’t it.
With a possible IPO in sight, Uber could lose investors and experience a plummeting valuation if it can’t get its public image under control. Furthermore, the controversial company’s fall could also spell the end of the sharing economy, as its holes reveal the larger problems with relying on unknown individuals to provide services from a place to sleep to grocery shopping. How comfortable are you with sharing data across platforms with strangers? And what should Uber be doing to increase comfort for customers in order to boost their confidence and cut down on abusive and predatory drivers?
1) In-App Panic Buttons
While this might seem extreme, it’s clearly needed at this point. With assaults in many cities, whether you view a few Uber drivers as bad apples or indicative of a systemic problem, passengers aren’t always safe in Uber cars. An in-app button that sends a message to Uber customer service, police, and a designated safety contact could create a mechanism for quickly reporting an escalating safety situation such as an aggressive driver, a possible kidnapping, or an assault.
Using panic buttons could also generate logs of incidents that could be tracked along with a driver’s overall record. A more refined version might offer a red alert (police, Uber, a friend) or a yellow (Uber customer service and a friend). Existing panic button app frameworks are already in place; Uber could license an extant product or build its own.
2) Instant Suspension of Drivers Pending Investigation
While Uber claims to suspend or even terminate drivers accused of committing crimes, that’s not always the case. The company must commit to suspending drivers who are under investigation for the term of their investigation, and to having a clear chain of command for evaluating drivers to determine if they should be released from the company. Termination should be automatic for drivers charged and convicted of crimes against passengers, or crimes that could mean they pose a risk to customers, such as rape, assault, or kidnapping.
There’s no reason to keep a suspect driver on the road. Uber has an obligation to its passengers, and just as in any other setting where keeping someone on the job could pose a risk to members of the public, Uber must commit to driver suspensions when warranted. At the very least, they could save the firm a potentially costly liability suit. Moreover, Uber needs to be transparent about its policies for suspension and termination, instead of hiding them behind a veil of secrecy.
3) Third-Party Background Checks
The company claims to use an aggressive background checking system, but it’s obviously not working. Drivers with criminal records have slipped through the background check in the past, and the process is not transparent. Consumers don’t know which standards the company applies and where the threshold lies in terms of deciding who should be allowed to drive for Uber.
Moving the process to a third party would create transparency (third parties could create documentation and put it in the public domain for the benefit of interested parties). It also eliminates concerns about potential conflicts. Third parties can focus on determining whether people are safe to drive for the company, period, without having to consider the PR implications or other issues. The use of third-party assurances is common in other industries, and it makes sense for any company that offers a service where strangers provide potentially intimate services.
4) Better Privacy Policies
As illustrated in Olivia Nuzzi’s shocking expose in The Daily Beast, Uber does not have good privacy policies or reinforcement of same for customers. While drivers aren’t supposed to get personal information about passengers, she had a horrifying experience with a driver who stalked her, sent messages to friends and her employer, and continued contacting her even after Uber ordered him to desist.
Uber claims the driver didn’t get the information from them. She wasn’t so convinced, and a little detective work uncovered the fact that many Uber public relations representatives weren’t familiar with the scope of information provided and had, at the very least, misspoken or possibly outright lied to her. Drivers should be supplied with first names only, no full names, credit card information, addresses, emails, or other identifying materials, and this information should be kept in isolated and robust databases for the protection of consumers.
5) Dedicated Customer Service
Uber has been dinged for its customer service before; the Better Business Bureau in fact gives the company an F on the basis of its customer service. Uber needs to have a much more robust customer service department with more extensive followups on specific reported issues, to ensure that complaints large and small do not get neglected. The ability to escalate key cases through customer service is also important; complaints of harassment, assault, and other potential physical or emotional harm need to be taken to the top and handled personally.
There’s a flip side to this, though: Consumers also need to be honest in their ratings of Uber drivers. The social pressure to award five stars automatically can be immense, especially with an Uber driver pleading for a good rating (low ratings lead to automatic suspensions). But it’s time for customers to be honest about drivers who endanger them, don’t maintain their vehicles, or make the ride unpleasant. Accurate ratings and more dedicated customer service could weed out the “bad apples” and make Uber a better company. Or they might illustrate that Uber can’t be redeemed.
6) High-Quality Driver Training
Uber drivers are given little training, and certainly don’t undergo the rigorous training and testing that taxi drivers endure. In fact, Uber recently announced that in addition to the cursory training it offers, drivers can pay to take a more extensive course. This needs to change; Uber should be offering the full course for free when a driver starts out, with regular refreshers to keep drivers sharp, and the coursework should include testing and evaluation overseen by third parties.
Drivers should be familiar with the environments where they work, comfortable with their vehicles, and aware of existing traffic laws and prevailing issues. If they aren’t, they put passengers and the public at risk. It’s time for Uber to take responsibility for its drivers. Driver training isn’t expensive, but it won’t happen without a commitment to do it.
7) Good Driving Rewards
Uber drivers who get good ratings and drive well should be rewarded for it with better contract terms, dividends, and bonuses. This would create an incentive culture for drivers, who would have a reason to perform at their peak for customers and for the company as a whole. It also shifts the burden away from punishments to rewards; even as Uber drivers who fail to meet standards would be dropped, those who exceed them would be elevated, creating something for other drivers to aspire to.
This kind of positive reinforcement could radically change the culture at Uber by making it into a company where people feel compelled to improve their performance, and to treat customers well, rather than allowing drivers to continue skating on past accomplishments.
For Uber, implementing these changes isn’t necessarily difficult or expensive, especially in light of the profits earned through surge pricing, but it does take time and a willingness to tackle the issues brought up by critics, concerned potential investors, and safety groups. If Uber can’t pull itself together, a huge premise of the modern digital economy may fall apart; right now, consumers trust in the kindness of strangers, but that trust may be misplaced.
s.e. smith is a Northern California-based journalist and writer focusing on social justice issues. smith's work has appeared in publications like Esquire, the Guardian, Rolling Stone, In These Times, Bitch Magazine, and Pacific Standard.