The success and scandal of Uber

Caoimhe Gordon investigates the power of Uber in today’s society after the loss of their licence in London last month

Photo by Joe McCallion

“Patience is a virtue.” The age-old mantra loses its relevance in this era – an era christened that of the “Instant Gratification Economy”. In these modern and technological times, almost anything can be assessed, perused and ordered through a single tap of a screen. Talking to other humans to confirm an order is replaced by an email. In fact, communication can be ultimately eliminated from the majority of transactions, due to the availability of an app that guarantees the same service without the often-painful small talk.

However, the rise of the desire for instant gratification has been aided by the rise of companies that aim to capitalise on the sheer volume of humans willing to befriend technology in the hopes of a simpler life. The company at the forefront of this movement is Uber, the ride-sharing service that has become so familiar that the company name has entered the vernacular. However, Uber’s attempts to maintain their initial momentum and control the market have often been thwarted. Last month, it was announced that Uber would lose its license in the thriving London metropolis. Although Uber has appealed the loss of this eight-million-customer market, this is not the company’s first tangle with trouble. Although in operation for a mere six years so far, Uber has accumulated a history of controversy, illustrating that the presence of a simplistic idea does not correlate to a difficulty-free business.

Garrett Camp is the Canadian man who had a successful online venture with the intriguing website, StumbleUpon. He conceptualised an on-demand car service after a particularly rocky New Year’s Eve attempting to order a private car, which ended up costing him and his friends $800. The business began as UberCab, and originally offered only luxury cars. Just as the name changed, so did the offerings of the company. Rumour holds that Camp, along with his co-partner Travis Kalanick, employed a think-tank including a nuclear physicist, a computational neuroscientist and a machinery expert to create an unbeatable model for the company. Thus began the era of unabated success for Uber as it became a point of common reference in the media, sparked countless protests by taxi drivers and held, in January 2017, a market share of 84% in the expanding ride-sharing business. It now has such services as UberEATS, UberAUTO (rickshaws in Pakistan), a courier service UberRUSH in select American cities and even UberBOAT in Istanbul and Croatia. In 2015, the service carried out its one billionth ride, and by October 2016, Uber was assisting forty million worldwide to travel to a destination of their choosing. Yet, controversy stalked the firm.

Mere months after this success, Garrett confirmed that his old pal Kalanick, then CEO, would not be returning to the firm. Then there was the infamous #DeleteUber hashtag that trended and branded the company as supporters of Trump’s travel ban. How did a company with such modern visions for transport throughout the world become synonymous with scandal, sexual harassment, bullying and unethical tactics?

Originally, the only difficulty customers could find in the service model was the surge pricing employed by Uber during rush times. As the app offers the user the price in advance before their departure, it distances itself from the dreaded meter usually used by taxi drivers. This affected customers after large concerts or sporting events where throngs of people seek an exit simultaneously.

However, since then this service could now only wish that this was their largest public relations problem. Their long-term feud with other similar companies, most notably Lyft, has resulted in great public dislike for the below-the-belt tactics employed by the firm to maintain its edge. Originally, these included ordering rides from a competing service and then cancelling them at the last minute to waste time and prevent drivers serving other customers. They also offered incentives to drivers who had chosen to drive with other services to join them.

This competitive streak came to a head after the travel ban first enacted by President Donald Trump in New York at the end of January. 19,000 members of the New York Taxi Work Alliance pledged to strike for one hour outside the busy JFK airport on the outskirts of New York City in response to this threat to Muslims entering the country. Uber was seen to capitalise on this absence of the famed yellow cabs and continued to pick up customers, even cancelling surge charge rates during this time due to demand. The response to this move was a public relations disaster for the calculating company as a tsunami of negative responses appeared in the media, including the #DeleteUber movement. Over 200,000 accounts were deleted during the following days, with Uber even having to introduce an automated Delete Account shortcut on the app due to the sheer amount of fury displayed by users. Lyft lingered in the shadows during this debacle but emerged days later to donate one million dollars to the American Civil Liberties Union, explaining to the press: “We created Lyft to be a model for the type of community we want our world to be – diverse, inclusive and safe.” The underlying dig remained: they also wanted to be viewed as the opposite of their fiercest rivals. Celebrities including Lena Dunham also joined those protesting Uber during this debacle, and this resulted in a speedy drop in market share for the company.

Much of the blame placed on Uber for its unlikeable façade is focussed upon the culture within the company. The company has been surrounded by constant allegations of sexual harassment within the company and by its drivers. This led to the resignation of the CEO, Kalanick. Leaks from within the firm have presented quite an unenticing Game of Thrones-esque battle for power within the company. This masculine hierarchy is not seen to be a positive work environment, even though the firm continues to hunt for the brightest to work at their San Francisco base. The company is also thought to continue to record the location of users even after the journey has been completed, using the so-called “god view“ technology. Even celebrities cannot avoid this, as it has been speculated by a whistleblower that the accounts of Beyoncé, as well as ex-boyfriends and girlfriends of employees and various politicians, were monitored without their knowledge. Google has sued the company based on allegations that Uber obtained information about their self-driving technology and attempted to use it themselves. Video evidence also exists that conveys the disaccord between drivers and the firm’s elite, as an argument between then-CEO Kalanick and a driver after a journey was caught on camera. This debate involved the falling fare prices offered by Uber to maintain a competitive edge, which the driver argued affected his earnings. Kalanick’s abrasive retort – “some people don’t like to take responsibility for their own shit” – encapsulated for many the company’s sole interest in making profit.

While Ireland has banned the use of private cars by Uber under guidelines presented by the National Transport Authority (NTA), it appears that Uber will continue to expand on these shores. In 2016, Uber opened its first Centre of Excellence outside the United States in Limerick. Costing €4 million, the aim of this centre, according to the firm, is to support their “millions of riders and tens of thousands of partner drivers in more than 30 cities in 10 countries”. Choosing this small city in Ireland as their base for the European headquarters is an interesting move by Uber, whose actions are constantly scrutinised by the media. Only time will tell how successful their European moves will be, as scandals in London look likely to follow them across the continent due to fears for customer safety.

Uber is a prime example of an “Old Boys’ Club” in action in modern-day Silicon Valley. The quest for control has led the company to commit many unthinkable and illegal acts, and, although the service has become a necessary part of many people’s lives in the twenty-first century, many wonder whether the overriding cruel nature of how they achieve success will affect the durability of this original service. Many of its users in London are currently at a loss as they imagine a life post-Uber within the city but only time will tell if Uber can regain their footing – and their license – and ultimately transform their negative image in the public eye.