Uber and Safety

When it comes to developing new products, I’ve always found the idea to be the easy part. It’s the execution that’s really the hard part. Execution requires implementing all of the tiny details to get everything just right. Miss one important detail and it can lead to failure.

I thought of this same issue with regards to Uber over the past several days with it being in the news. The Uber idea is brilliant, one of the best to come out of the tech industry since perhaps Facebook. The company has gotten most everything right, except one: its approach to the safety of its customers. Does that make Uber vulnerable?

Now, Uber is not going to fail but its success can seriously be affected if customers begin to worry about their safety. Even when the odds are tiny, consider how many people are afraid to fly after a serious plane crash.

Had I not covered two incidents of Uber customers this past summer for the San Diego Transcript, I might have felt differently when reading about how an Uber driver in Kalamazoo, MI was charged with gunning down a half-dozen people at random. I found Uber brings some of this on itself with its own indifference and stubbornness. They are not doing everything they can to protect their customers. That was my conclusion after covering these two events and interviewing the victims.

A friend of mine, a female Silicon Valley executive, experienced a harrowing experience when she took an Uber on what should have been a ten-minute drive from one part of San Francisco to another. The driver took a long route onto a congested freeway, even though the driver’s GPS suggested a local route, and then went into a frenzy when she questioned him. The driver sped down the breakdown lane past stopped traffic to his left and cut across several lanes of traffic, threatening to let her out on the freeway. She was fortunate to get out when the car stopped several blocks from her destination.

A second victim called right after this first story ran. Her Uber driver took her in the opposite direction to where she was going and told her he was going to show her “a good time”. She only got the driver to relent when she started filming him and threatening to call the police.

In each instance, neither was able to reach Uber to report these incidents. Uber has no phone number to report problems.

The first victim was able to reach Uber only by tweeting. The company’s response was to send a link to fill out a form and a $5 refund. The second victim called the police and, when she finally was able to reach Uber, they said the driver has a known hearing problem and blamed her for misunderstanding him. She also discovered when she tried to give the police the driver information and license number from her phone, the Uber app deletes that information once the ride begins.

In each case, the victims felt Uber showed indifference and denial.

Think about this. In each case, a life was put in danger. Yet, Uber did not react as any of us would if we saw a person in harm’s way. It’s lunacy that Uber does not provide a phone number to report incidences of this type. You would think the company would want to know whenever such incidents occurred.

Any company experiencing the rapid growth Uber is going through can’t possibly prevent the hiring of problem drivers. Some bad ones will get through their screening system. And proper vetting is likely one of their biggest costs, perhaps next to legal.

But even after the killings in Kalamazoo, Uber insisted they plan no changes to their screening process, which currently requires that an applicant submits their name, birth date, social security number, vehicle registration, insurance, license, and a vehicle inspection report.

Yet, they are facing lawsuits from several cities, including San Francisco, for not doing enough to screen drivers, exaggerating how safe they are, and allowing convicted felons to become drivers. Uber does not do any face-to-face screening nor do they do fingerprint checking, something most law enforcement agencies recommend.

Uber just settled one lawsuit for $28.5 million for, among other things, claiming it was “the safest ride on the road”. Clearly Uber can do more to protect its customers.

Published by

Phil Baker

Phil Baker is a product development expert, author, and journalist covering consumer technology. He is the co-author with Neil Young of the forthcoming book, “To Feel the Music,” and the author of “From Concept to Consumer.” He’s a former columnist for the San Diego Transcript, and founder of Techsperts, Inc. You can follow him at www.bakerontech.com.

32 thoughts on “Uber and Safety”

  1. I’m really wondering what part of Uber and all Uber-like companies is due to their innovative and user-friendly business model, and what part is due to their shirking of the costs entailed by regular companies: hiring, training, health care & retirement plans, employment taxes, insurance, safety requirements…

    If employment keeps going to a model that’s not only at-will, but on-demand and superficially as independent subcontractors, I think the legislative framework will have to formalize and probably expand what the “employers’ ” duties to both customers and contractors are. “None” is probably not acceptable in the long term if this setup thrives.

    1. “If employment keeps going to a model that’s not only at-will…”

      What do you mean by ‘…keeps going to a model…’?

      Employment at-will is an existing U.S. labor law. Is it different for you? At-will states, such as California, allow employees to be dismissed without recourse as long as the dismissal was not illegal. Also, courts will make the assumption that your employment agreement is at-will if not explicitly stated. There are some federal and state laws for your employment protection; you have rights against discrimination and harassment and protection without fear of retaliation if you assert your safety rights. Also, you cannot be fired for family, medical, military, voting, or jury leave.

      You also mention legislative framework will have to formalize and expand employer duties to customers and contractors. What do you mean? Can you explain with an example of your expectation(s).?

      Currently consumers use consumer relation organizations for recourse, the legal system for fraud protection; it’s a very big business—class action lawsuits are a dime a dozen. As for contractors, they assume risk for accurate income and tax reporting every quarter, they buy their insurance, they assume risk, they agree to some form of compensation either fixed or rate. Contractors may need to carry errors and omissions, bond, and other form of liability insurance.

      What duty should the employer, (I really have a client relationship), have toward a contractor? I am curious because I own and run a medium size architecture and development firm for nearly 20 years and contract with hundreds of contractors, and they may have subs. Also, my firm has been a contractor with large government brown field projects lasting months to years.

      It would be interesting to know your spin on what a business owners duties are to a contractor.

      1. My comments apply in a B-to-C setting (and the equivalent business-to-individual for the subcontracting relationship), I don’t think that would apply to your business.

        It’s simple really: as a consumer, if I buy a defective doodad from Amazon, Amazon is responsible for exchanging/fixing it, with a clearly defined framework. They’re also responsible for not selling defective goods, making sure they have the proper certifications… It should be the same for labor resellers. Again, warranties and responsibilities are much lower in a B2B setting.

        On the worker side, salaried employees have a set of advantages and guarantees (minimum wage, sick leave, health coverage, retirement, training…). Independent contractors of the Uber type should have the same, prorated per hour worked. There’s probably an issue spotting the “real” contractors, and the employee-in-disguise type. At least in France, that can be solved by using the criteria of incorporation (individuals can do business either as themselves or create a special single-person company).

        The “keeps going to at-will then everyone’s a contractor” bit doesn’t mean it’s illegal (at will doesn’t exist in France though, you’ve got temporary 18 month max contracts renewable 3 times and more easily breakable, but not open-ended at will), and maybe not even undesirable. The side effects are a regression though, and those flexible “hiring” practices are often not used for the flexibility, but to avoid costs and responsibilities. If the practice develops, that should probably be looked at.

    2. I’ve always asserted, Uber makes money by evading the taxman, the safety inspector, and the insurance underwriter. Then as a bonus, its drivers gather their cars’ depreciation and generously gift them to Uber. Can’t beat that gig.

  2. Uber has always been determined to go its own way in its business and to hell with regulators. I suspect that viewpoint has driven their laxness about customer safety, but their reputation for customer safety has been getting steadily worse since they started. If they don’t change their course it’s going to really hurt them at some point, when users begin turning away from them.

          1. I ditched the Uber app when they suddenly had surge pricing on a perfectly average Friday night. Where I live we have very decent public transportation, good albeit pricey taxis and loads of mini cabs. So there is no need to stay with Uber.
            Acting like Comcast only works as a business model if you have no competition.

          2. I think it’s going to take more than yourself to cause Uber any headaches. Uber just has far too many riders, generate a lot more new riders and captures more credit cards, even though Uber’s average cost is nearly 50% more than Lyft’s.

            It seems Uber has succeeded where it needs to, meet 80% of the needs. It appears that Uber is just pulling away and they don’t even see Lyft in the rearview mirror.

            And, they cannot act like Comcast because the business is very different. Uber’s revenue is not based on residual, or if you like, recurring income. Uber gets to be more flexible with pricing. They can scout for riders and be there immediately. Comcast has to persuade with many offers and packages.

          3. Remember those millions of Twitter users who tried the service but decided it was not for them. It would not be too difficult for Uber to emulate that model and burn a lot of their users with erratic product quality.

          4. I think Twitter is a product that confused a lot of people and they chose to leave. It would appear that people didn’t know what to make of it and its real purpose. I would bet Twitter had no idea what Twitter is or suppose to be.

          5. How about Lyft or a similar service that focus on safety first. We are already seeing some taxi services using apps and offering more flexibility. As a need arises there are always companies to fill it.

  3. Uber is a consumer facing business that relies on repeat customers. Not protecting their brand name, not proactively dealing with quality issues, and only firing drivers after an incident seem to be big mistakes. Not least because it will give unfriendly incumbents and regulators arguments why the public ought to be “protected” against the likes of Uber.

  4. First, idea of connecting passengers to transportation is not all that innovative. It was actually used by taxis and predates Uber.

    Second, and more importantly, it’s business model depends on three things: scale, price and most crucially on driving down operating cost through ignoring the laws, shifting liability and ignoring safety of passengers.

    Uber’s slick PR exploits public’s ignorance and engage in predatory tactics to gain unfair advantage, market share and influence.

    The incidents described here and many more reported in the press are not a bug in the system, they a byproduct of the features deliberately built into and relied upon for platform’s success. They are not a product of poor execution but a deliberate corporate strategy that seeks to reduce cost and avoid responsibility.

    1. You’re correct, and your last paragraph is especially true.

      If Uber keeps it up, the word will get around and it WILL hurt them.

  5. This is an issue with all of the sharing economy. Millions more strangers doing business without proper vetting. I wouldn’t want to get into a car with a driver who hasn’t passed a simple fingerprint check. Anyone can pretend to be their brother or assume a stolen, clean identity without a fingerprint check. I mistakenly assumed Uber already did this.

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