Can We Trust Uber?
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.
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...
This article was posted by Bob Rankin on 18 Dec 2014
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Article information: AskBobRankin -- Can We Trust Uber? (Posted: 18 Dec 2014)
Copyright © 2005 - Bob Rankin - All Rights Reserved