It's common practice in the tech world to rush your product to market, picking up the pieces as you go. This works fine when you're in the business of selling ideas, or soft-serve ice cream delivery (somebody do this, please), or artisanal organic laundry service. Get it out there, apologize in advance that nothing's perfect, do better next time. No harm done.
Then there's a product like Uber. Uber, if you're just joining the conversation, is supposed to change the way city dwellers think about transportation. It's supposed to put taxis out of business, or at least make them change their wicked ways.
Look, that's fine. I've been riding cabs in New York City for years. Mostly it's not a big deal. Rarely is the experience pleasant.
And let's face it, cabbies in some cities are crooks. Even a few of them in New York. Lots of them in Athens.
A little healthy competition? Sign me up.
But not like this. Let's be clear: Uber has made a really slick little app. But when you fire it up and summon a driver, you're putting your life in their hands. Is that driver insured properly? Does he have liability insurance? Is it current or did it expire last week? Who's checking? What's the company's liability if you're injured in a crash? What are the local laws? What protections are there in your market?
Ask Uber these things and they'll smother you with smooth talk. That's fine. Uber is a corporation, just like any other, caring most about protecting itself and making money. But don't we have a right to know if we're protected, too? Should a company that thinks it's perfectly fine to operate illegally be supported?
You'll pardon me if I stick to cabs for now -- here are, what I feel, seven very good reasons you should do the same.
#1 Uber not only flaunts regulation, it thinks it has the right to go unregulated.
On one hand, I admire Uber's strategy -- become popular enough with users, rules of the market be dammed, then enlist users to bully local officials into letting you operate there. Most of the time, it seems to work -- some jurisdictions have even publicly stated that banning Uber would be bad for business. What city can afford to say no to one of the hottest new toys of the tech-savvy crowd? Other times, they get cease-and-desist letters (as happened in Houston), because the tech-savvy crowd, at Uber's behest, won't stop harassing City Hall. In France, two Uber executives have been indicted for enabling illegal taxi services and illegal data storage (they go on trial this month unless their lawyers can argue for a further delay). And in Capetown, South Africa, police have impounded dozens of illegally operated Uber cars. Again - it's all well and good to disrupt the marketplace, but this is a car service. Safety is a huge issue, and no company is above the rule of law. I don't see how it's wrong to expect a corporation to think it's okay to break safety and licensing rules, just to get their product rolled out in a few new markets faster.
#2 When things go bad, Uber plays that always-annoying "what, who, us?" game.
There have been too many instances of this, but one really sticks out: A young girl crossing the street with her mother in San Francisco back in December was killed by a motorist who told cops he was working for Uber. Uber immediately released a statement saying he was not working for Uber, then released another statement clarifying that he was indeed logged on to the Uber app but not doing business for Uber at the time -- in other words, he was between passengers, which, according to Uber, meant they bore no responsibility. After all, you see, Uber isn't a transportation company, as they'll delight in telling you. They're a technology company. Drivers download the app and passengers hope for the best. If anything goes wrong? Uber has a bad habit of washing their hands. A wrongful-death lawsuit has been filed against the company.
#3 Uber doesn't screen its drivers adequately.
A driver in San Francisco that attacked a passenger physically and verbally was later found to have passed Uber's "zero-tolerance" background check with flying colors, despite a colorful criminal history. Another in Los Angeles bragged to NBC that she had a "three-page rap sheet." A test of drivers in Chicago revealed that many of them had almost zero knowledge of the city, which at the very least, is a disservice to passengers.
#4 Cabbies may not be angels, but neither are Uber drivers.
Where to start -- the Los Angeles driver who held a woman's phone hostage for a $500 ransom, after she left in in her car? Uber apologized, deactivated the driver's account and essentially told the passenger to cross her fingers and hope for the best. Back in Chicago, another driver sexually assaulted his female passenger, landing the company in legal hot water. Give them credit, I guess -- this time, they actually acknowledged the complaint, as opposed to playing the "she's lying" card. (Always a classy move.)
#5 The company's response to the growing chorus of negativity? Slap a surcharge on their customers.
Oh, wait, so you want a safe ride with a driver who doesn't know how to make toilet wine in his or her prison cell? Fine, says Uber: Please note our new $1 "Safe Rides Fee." That's right -- users of their ride-sharing network, called UberX, now pay this fee every single time they ride, in order to "support the increased costs associated with our continued efforts to ensure the safest platform for Uber riders and drivers." So what they're saying is, fine everyone -- you want deeper background checks, more driver safety education and better insurance? Pay for it yourself. That kind of tells me everything I need to know about the way Uber thinks. Later for that.
#6 They treat their employees badly.
When Uber first started, there were fewer drivers chasing fares. But as the company has added "contractors" (Uber refuses to call them employees), driver pay has gone down in some cities as competition from other drivers has increased. As one former driver told The Washington Post, “I had to pay taxes, gas, mileage and for car maintenance and repairs. I was spending time and making $3 per hour.” As it added drivers, Uber began cutting rates, taking higher commissions for itself, and adding driver fees such as a $10 fee for using the booking app. Another driver told the PBS Newshour, "With the rate cuts you basically break even. With some rides, you might actually be losing money."
#7 Their terms of service are stacked against customers and drivers.
Uber's terms of service are written for its own benefit, not its passengers or contractors. As with many terms of service these days, you must submit to arbitration rather than suing Uber if you're harmed in any way. And I quote:
UBER DOES NOT GUARANTEE THE QUALITY, SUITABILITY, SAFETY OR ABILITY OF THIRD PARTY PROVIDERS. YOU AGREE THAT THE ENTIRE RISK ARISING OUT OF YOUR USE OF THE SERVICES, AND ANY SERVICE OR GOOD REQUESTED IN CONNECTION THEREWITH, REMAINS SOLELY WITH YOU, TO THE MAXIMUM EXTENT PERMITTED UNDER APPLICABLE LAW.
UBER SHALL NOT BE LIABLE FOR INDIRECT, INCIDENTAL, SPECIAL, EXEMPLARY, PUNITIVE, OR CONSEQUENTIAL DAMAGES, INCLUDING … PERSONAL INJURY, OR PROPERTY DAMAGE RELATED TO, IN CONNECTION WITH, OR OTHERWISE RESULTING FROM ANY USE OF THE SERVICES, EVEN IF UBER HAS BEEN ADVISED OF THE POSSIBILITY OF SUCH DAMAGES.
Anyway, one day Uber may not even be a thing. Enter self-driving cars from Google, Tesla, and other automakers. Perhaps in a decade, perhaps sooner, you'll use an app to summon a driverless ride. It will take you to your destination by the shortest route every time. And it will be safer than any human driver. And no tipping required. And for that, I am definitely on board.