Can We Trust Uber?

Category: Mobile

It can be hard to get a cab in a busy city. Fares are high, wait times are long, and taxi drivers often don't have good English skills. Uber is one attempt to solve this problem with smartphones, GPS technology and the Internet. But can we trust them? Read on…

What is Uber?

Getting a taxi is problematic in major metropolitan areas unless it’s for a trip between the airport and downtown. The taxi industry is regulated by local governments and is supposed to serve all passengers equally, but drivers will often leave you waiting for a one-mile ride while they chase more lucrative tourist and business traveler fares.

The number of licensed cabs allowed on the road is rationed so that demand almost always exceeds supply. So there is plenty of room for competition in the livery business, as it’s called. Craigslist has a “rideshare” section whose title indicates it was originally intended to hook up people who want to car-pool regularly. But these days it’s mainly cross-country trip-seekers interspersed with ads from “car service” firms.

Most car services are very small concerns with just a handful of vehicles available, or even just one. You can’t get a ride on-demand unless you call a lot of car services and get lucky. Inexperienced riders know nothing about the quality of car services or the character of the drivers; they may as well be hitchhiking. It’s rather risky to seek a ride on Craigslist.
Uber vs. Taxi

Into the gap between the highly-regulated cab industry and fly-by-night car services has stepped Uber, a broker of rides and passengers. Originally a luxury-ride firm with a fleet of black town cars, Uber expanded in 2012 to include any licensed driver with an acceptable vehicle. Essentially, Uber is like a travel agency, receiving ride requests from passengers and forwarding them to nearby drivers. It does not own cars (except its black fleet) or employ drivers.

Uber operates entirely via its smartphone app; there’s not even a desktop counterpart. Here's the cool, innovative part of Uber: The app allows a passenger to request a ride with a tap on his or her smartphone, book one of perhaps many responding drivers, and track the progress of the ride to their location. You don't even need to know your exact location -- your phone's GPS takes care of that.

After selecting a ride, you'll see the driver's name on your screen, and you can message or call them while waiting. Payment is handled via a credit card registered with the app, and you can even split the fare with other riders who have the Uber app. A receipt is emailed to you after the ride.

The Dark Side

“No need to tip!” says Uber, which undoubtedly deters many of the more professional drivers from contracting with Uber.

Uber claims that all of its affiliated drivers are subjected to criminal background checks. That claim was dramatically challenged recently when an Uber driver was charged with raping a passenger in New Delhi, India, and subsequent investigation revealed that no driver background checks were being conducted in that country. Uber has now been banned from the entire nation of India. So far, no one has verified whether Uber actually does background checks in other countries. And at least three Boston-area women have reported being assaulted by Uber drivers this month alone. One driver was charged with rape and kidnapping. In response to these incidents, Uber is promising to implement new safety measures.

Uber claims it is not subject to laws that regulate taxi services. It has entered a number of markets in willful defiance of local governments’ warnings that its service is illegal. Portland, Oregon, officials laid snares for Uber drivers after warning the company not to start up there, and have issued numerous citations to Uber drivers and the company since Uber’s first day of operation in Portland.

Without the overhead of regulation, licensing fees, bonding, fleet maintenance, etc., one might expect Uber’s fares to be lower than those of taxis. But of course, they are not; in fact, Uber fares can skyrocket as much as 700% during periods of peak demand such as weekends, Halloween, and stormy weather! Uber even (briefly) charged riders trying to escape an armed hostage crisis in Sydney, Australia a minimum $100 fee.

The company says its “surge pricing” model helps to “quell demand” and attract more drivers, making it easier to get a ride promptly. Well, jacking the price of a gallon of milk to $15 in the wake of a hurricane makes it easier to get milk if you have the money, but in every jurisdiction that’s called “price-gouging.”

In addition to the “no tipping” insult, Uber reportedly treats its drivers rather shabbily. Customers are urged to rate each trip and driver; three bad ratings and a driver’s contract with Uber is terminated without investigation, warning or appeal. Drivers report constant pressure to “drive faster” even at the risk of speeding tickets or causing accidents.

Uber has shown exactly zero respect for customers’ privacy. It’s been confirmed that Uber staff has the ability to track any customer’s movements in what is internally called “God view,” and that this power is often used recreationally. A job applicant reported that he was enabled to track customers as part of the interview process, and retained “God view” privileges for several hours after the interview.

Car Wars: Will the Empire Strike Back?

Lyft is an Uber clone and competitor that was founded in 2012, coincidentally around the time that Uber expanded. No love has been lost between the two companies; in fact, their competitive antics resemble bare-knuckles boxing.

Both companies have accused each other of sabotage – filing dozens of bogus ride requests that result in “no-shows,” thereby delaying service to legitimate passengers. Uber and Lyft have sent their drivers to poach the competition’s drivers while posing as passengers, and the war of words between the companies in the press never ends.

Uber considers the media to be its enemy, too. Apparently irritated by negative press, senior VP Emil Michael suggested that Uber should hire “opposition researchers” and spend “a million dollars” to dig up dirt on critical journalists. While he later apologized and said Uber would never do such things, the mere fact that Michael blurted this notion at a dinner attended by media figures is telling.

I think the word “psychopathy” is grossly overused and distorted these days, but it still has meaning and accurately describes certain personalities. Extreme narcissism (“We don’t have to obey livery laws”), lack of empathy for others (“No need to tip”), glib dishonesty (“surge pricing benefits passengers”), and aggressive overreaction to criticism are hallmarks of this mental illness. I see these symptoms in Uber, and so I would never get into one of its cars. But a million other people do, every day.

I love the idea of a car service that is crowd-sourced, technology-assisted and market-driven, with transparent pricing and the ability to give feedback on drivers. But Uber is not that ideal. Perhaps over time, they can work out their issues with privacy, security, pricing and compliance with local laws. Maybe they'll scare the taxi industry into adopting some of their 21st-century innovations. We'll see...

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Can We Trust Uber?"

Posted by:

18 Dec 2014

I will never become an Uber customer after the experience I had a few weeks ago. I was at a holiday party and needed to leave early because I suddenly didn't feel well. The hostess insisted on calling a car for me through Uber so I didn't have to take the bus. The driver was very polite and spoke good English, but he did NOT know where he was going. I gave him directions, which he ignored, and we went well out of our way and had to double back. I'm sure my poor hostess got gouged in the process (I've already told her that I owe her a dinner). In any case, I've never had this problem with a cab driver who was licensed by the city of Chicago, because they all have to pass a rigorous geography test. There are very good reasons for this industry to be tightly regulated, and having a driver who actually knows where to go is just one of them.

Posted by:

J. R.
18 Dec 2014

I think I would rather take a bus than deal with all this malarkey.

Posted by:

Robert Kemper
18 Dec 2014

I hope that no one has the guts to call this progress!

Posted by:

18 Dec 2014

I drive for Uber, the experience is quite pleasant. I used Uber as a passenger before I decided to partner. That experience helped me decide to drive for Uber. Uber is just as risky as a cab as far as psychopathic drivers go. Uber is in headlines now so it's popular to put Uber down. But you never hear anyone praise a cab company like you hear praise from people who use Uber. Privacy issues are a concern. Still Uber's privacy issues are no worse than Google or Yahoo, Paypal, Ebay etc.

Uber drivers are treated well. Uber drivers are partners, not employees. The 5 star rating system keeps drivers on their toes, inspires them to give 5 star service. Uber passengers are rated also for the similar reason. Passengers must behave respectfully during an Uber trip. No smoking, no drinking spirits, no abusive communication... Passenger who receive too many bad ratings from drivers are blocked from Uber service. I believe the rating system protects booth driver and rider.

I don't agree with all of Uber's policies and business practices, but they improve as needs and issues arise. Uber does Ride Share Service the best, compared to the rest. Uber has some growing up (and explaining) to do, it's a new tech, Uber isn't a saint by any means! Uber is no more evil than any other company in business today. But it is the lesser of all evils by far in the Ride Sharing and Livery Service world. Still, when people try Uber, they don't go back to cabs unless Uber isn't in their city yet.

Posted by:

18 Dec 2014

Hey, I'm a pretty astute consumer advocate (professionally). My wife and I got rid of one of our cars and use Uber and Lyft quite a bit in San Diego. We've been super pleased with both services and find them to be consistently cheaper than a taxi. Last month, we took Lyft to the airport -- it cost $20. Because our airport forbids private car pick-ups, we had to use a taxi. We paid $30 for the return. We've not had many bad experiences (one -- a bad driver) and often the rides are delightful with drivers who are really nice ---- nicer than most of the tired and jaded professional taxi drivers in town. I also disagree with some of Bob's assessments about the Portland dispute; there is a lot of politics and legal maneuvering involved in that issue. Our bottom line: using Uber and Lyft has turned out to cost us less than half of the maintenance and insurance for our second car. I'd not recommend that people write off either Uber or Lyft, although I certainly hope that more competitors develop. In California, some cities are allowing taxi drivers to create their own version of Uber -- that should increase competition and clean up some of the abuses noted by Bob.

Posted by:

18 Dec 2014

I just took UBER in LA for the first time and had a great experience. They have 3 or 4 tiers depending on the car you want and actually got an upgraded driver when we requested the lowest tier UberX.
He told us how he has to keep his car immaculate and send a picture to UBER each day he works. The car was a Mercedes vs a stinky cab and it was about 40% less in cost than a taxi. Coming back to the airport we were going to try LYFT but they were having a surge so we chose UBER again and had a similar great experience.
As far as tipping..when you create your profile you have a choice to automatically tip 10,15, 20% etc which will always be added to your fare once you select which one you want. Its very hassle paying a cab at the end of the ride etc. Im a fan!.

Posted by:

18 Dec 2014

A few weeks back you mentioned mintlinux (based on ubuntu). Have you checked out puzzlelinux (also based on ubuntu)? - It looks very interesting, maybe worth sharing with your readers?

Posted by:

18 Dec 2014

I'm all for free market competition. The city cab medallions are in many bigger locales, a huge racket, keeping newer business people (taxi owners/drivers) OUT of the market. Government needs to stop over-regulating nearly everything. Let us hope that visitors to cities where uber and lyft are operating will take their sentiments back and express them to the pols in places where these services are locked out due to over-regulation.

Posted by:

18 Dec 2014

Concerns that I have - in addition to the ones listed. Licensed cab drivers and their companies have liability insurance to protect their passengers. Private individuals - ones who drive for Uber and other companies - are usually relying upon their personal car insurance to protect themselves and their passengers. However, personal car insurance doesn't usually extend to paying passengers - and your insurance may be invalidated.

Not a concern ordinarily, but in the case of a fatality or accident that maims passengers, this may be vital to survival financially and even medically.

Posted by:

18 Dec 2014

When I first considered using Uber, I wanted to determine how thoroughly the drivers were vetted. So I went to the site and clicked on the link "Become an Uber driver." I went through enough steps in the process to determine that there was no vetting at all--no bond, no special insurance, no background or criminal check. So I decided not to use them.

Posted by:

19 Dec 2014

My question is about car insurance. If you're using your car for a business, you need different insurance. Are there instances (there must be) where accidents happen? What happens to liability? And I hope it isn't, "It's the driver's responsibility" as that won't cut it if you only have personal insurance.

Posted by:

19 Dec 2014

In PA I can use any Rail, Bus or Public transportation 24-7 free as a Senior Citizen, this is supported by the PA Lottery. I don't drive very much except for Food Shopping, Dr. Appointments. Only gas up every 2 or 3 months. Uber and unlicensed Cabs are ticketed and towed. They don't have a Chauffer license or insurance.

Posted by:

19 Dec 2014


You cannot over-regulate where public transport is concerned especially in the case of taxi services - you are a woman surely you see the reasons??

Posted by:

elizabeth landry
19 Dec 2014

Dear Bob,
Uber is a great idea if the drivers are required to carry liability insurance. Anything less should be illegal. Peace, E.

Posted by:

Darcetha Manning
19 Dec 2014

My question is about car insurance. If you're using your car for a business, you need different insurance. Are there instances (there must be) where accidents happen? What happens to liability? And I hope it isn't, "It's the driver's responsibility" as that won't cut it if you only have personal insurance.jim
19 Dec 2014

I agree with the above statement made by Jim. Taxis and public bus drivers have to insurance, to protect them from liability. Ordinary motor vehicle insurance, that these Uber and Lyft drivers have, will not protect them, in the event of an accident, because they are operating in a chauffeur capacity.

Posted by:

Alexander Jankowski
13 Feb 2015

This is certainly a subject of interest to many, based on your reader posts. However it has only the slightest of links to end-user computing, and the points you make seem not to involve them. I am not calling you out for this article. I cannot see you posting an article on, say, partisan politics. Still, where should the line be drawn?

EDITOR'S NOTE: "Freedom of the press," I've heard it said, "belongs to him who owns one." As to your point, I've never limited myself to writing about end-user computing. I've posted an article about my dog on this website, and another on cholesterol. It seems fair to say that computers, gadgets, online privacy & security, and internet services are the primary topics here. But occasionally, I'll post other things that strike my fancy as well. :-)

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