Uber is breaking bad

Uber has built a great service. Why do they feel the need to use dirty tricks to succeed?


Tim O’Reilly has said that Uber is an example of designing for how the world ought to be. Their app works well, their cars are clean, their drivers are pleasant, and they usually arrive quickly. But more goes into the experience of a company than just an app. Corporate behavior is also part of the company’s design; perhaps not as noticeable as their Android or iPhone app, but a very real part. That’s where Uber falls down. They have increasingly been a bad actor, on many counts:

I could go on (advertising hot female drivers, abuses of their privacy policy, and more), but I won’t. You get the point. This is #GamerGate, but with a $17 billion valuation behind it.

Uber likes to hide behind the shield that they’re a “technology company.” They write an app, they maintain a database, but they’re not in the transportation business. The drivers are independent business people, not employees, and the riders are the drivers’ customers, not Uber’s. That’s all well and good on paper, but it creates a huge disconnect between the company, the people doing the hard work of driving cars, and the people buying the services. It isn’t OK for Uber the company to be unaccountable to its drivers or its riders. That’s a situation that’s ripe for abuse — and abuse is what we’re seeing.

I am not grousing about Uber’s conflicts with regulators. I dislike attempts to use regulation to discourage new economic models and preserve entrenched business interests. I hate taxis, and Uber has provided a welcome alternative. Current taxi regulations (at least in the US — I don’t know about Europe) have created conditions that are hardly different from debt slavery, and are bad for both the driver and the customer. I also know how hard it is to find a taxi when you really need one. Walk from 10th Avenue in Manhattan to 2nd in the rain? Done that, and I didn’t see an empty cab the whole time. That walk convinced me that I needed to sign up for Uber.

But since that long walk, Uber’s behavior has become unacceptable. If I thought boycotts were particularly effective, I’d suggest a boycott until Uber gets its act together. I hope, though, that Uber’s investors will stop counting the dollars that might flow into their funds should Uber eventually make the big IPO, and think hard about the damage that Uber’s management is doing to their investment. It’s difficult to build a good name, and very easy to destroy it. If I had a few million dollars worth of skin in the game, that is very much what I’d be thinking about it. In many start-ups, no matter how profitable, a time comes when the investors need to step in and provide “adult supervision.” This would be that time.

If this is Uber’s vision of how the world ought to be, leave me out. Next time I need a ride, I’ll certainly be thinking about Lyft.

Cropped image on article and category pages by sfullenwider on Flicker, used under a Creative Commons license.

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  • Lee Livezey

    Uber is just the latest example of why we need to advocate for more transparency in IoE business models. I expressed this concern in my SFIoT UnConference talk last August, “as a startup grows to become a big enterprise its interests diverge from those of the community that fueled it’s success. Hubris and greed become all too common.” (http://www.slideshare.net/LeeLivezey/tearing-down-the-silos)
    In a world where even a Fitbit App is storing your data on their corporate cloud, corporate ethics matter. All it will take is another Enron in the IoE space to destroy public trust and make it more difficult to deliver on the promise.

  • oh7dp

    Driving a cab isn’t the worst job around– construction jobs are tough during the winter and the summer. But it can be a drag. The biggest problem is that the regular cab industry used regulatory control to block competition. And what happened? They cut expenses to the bone and devalued the product because they didn’t have to worry about competition.

    You’re right that Uber is fibbing about the economic benefits and hiding many of the unpleasant details, but they are putting a nicer facade on an essential business. The more they can encourage competition and improve the quality of the business, the more that both the drivers and the customers will benefit. People like to work for high quality businesses and Uber has delivered on that.

  • Alan Clayton

    do go look at http://www.CarmaCarpool.com – by contrast, a business model that solves the problem without profiteering, and run by possibly one of the most ethical teams on the planet. Yes, I biased. And Yes, its true !!

  • Tobias Michaelsen

    I get the app thing, but “their cars are clean, their drivers are pleasant, and they usually arrive quickly” pretty much describes the standard taxi here in Denmark (and many other European countries). So we just need someone to make a better app than what is currently available, then I don’t see any reason at all for Uber being here.