I stopped riding Uber long ago and switched to its rival Lyft. Perhaps you did, too.
To try to win us back, Ubers new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi recently met me in his office – and for an Uber ride around San Francisco.
He didnt sell me on Ubers market dominance or its cost-conscious “express pool” option. He didnt bring up its flying cars (though they have new plans for that, too). He spoke with baited breath about . . . safety.
Ubers previous leader, co-founder Travis Kalanick, had demonstrated the judgment of a Bond villain. Under his watch, Uber made headlines for creepy drivers, stealing secrets and sexual harassment. His motto was “always be hustlin.” Then last year, after #DeleteUber went viral, Uber ousted Kalanick. Eight months ago, it replaced him with Khosrowshahi, the well-liked CEO of Expedia.
Uber is now run by your dad. Climbing into our black SUV Uber, 48-year-old Khosrowshahi – actually a father of four – made a point of buckling up. Interviewing for the CEO job, he recalled, an Uber board member asked him what his passenger rating was. It was 4.73 stars out of five. “The board was not happy with that rating,” he said. “I wasnt wearing seat belts in the back and I didnt even know that I was making the driver feel unsafe.”
Khosrowshahi comes across as an uncommonly cautious guy for a start-up CEO, but dont let that fool you: Hes brought significant, sometimes painful changes to Uber. Hes just going about it like a grown-up. The company, he said, has a trust problem – that why it shed roughly 10 points of U.S. market share in 2017 and began having difficulty recruiting. So shortly after he joined, Khosrowshahi made Ubers motto, “we do the right thing, period.”
“And if we keep doing the right thing, period, by our employees, by our riders, by our driver partners, I think that we will start to turn,” he said.
–An ethical Uber?
Silicon Valley could use a lot more discussion of ethics, even if Uber is the last start-up Id have thought would blaze that path. But for Uber to get us to re-download an app weve already deleted, its going to have to offer something we cant get from Lyft or a taxi.
“It fundamentally comes with a better product and a better service,” Khosrowshahi said, sitting in Kalanicks old glass-enclosed War Room, now renamed the Peace Room. Uber, he said, sweats details of the ride-sharing experience that produce grumbles, including when an estimated time of arrival is way off.
His problem is that Uber and Lyft feel interchangeable, at least in large cities. Aside from different reputations, they mimic each other on passenger app features: Lyft pays carbon offsets for its rides. Uber is folding into its app bike shares and local public transit options. (Your move, Lyft.)
Khosrowshahis road to redemption lies in safety. “If you can tell a friend Ubers the safest mobility platform around, can you beat that as a reason?” Khosrowshahi said. “And by the way, its price competitive and the ETAs are fine and the cars are good. But its safer! Short term, its costing us and I dont think our message is quite getting out there. Long term, if were the safety leader I think youre going to win.”
Khosrowshahi had lots of ideas for how Uber might make leaps in safety. Some of them are eyebrow-raising. But making them happen is going to test how grown-up, transparent and ethical a company Uber has become.
–“Standing for safety”
Talking about safety might also be seen as a convenient charm offensive for a company so frequently in the news for, well, harm.
Khosrowshahi spent much of his first few months on the job making reparations to the people the company had hurt. He built bridges with Ubers drivers through a better-designed app and quicker ways to get paid. He settled a lawsuit with Google over stealing self-driving car tech. The company dismissed 20 employees for unacceptable behavior.
Uber also continues to make the wrong kind of news about safety. In March, a test self-driving Uber in Arizona struck and killed a pedestrian. Khosrowshahi halted testing the autonomous vehicles, and hired a former top U.S. transportation official to advise it on safety. Ubers going to need us to think its safe if were ever going to ride its self-driving cars.
While those fires smolder, Khosrowshahi has done more than talk about safety. “Standing for safety means beefing up very significantly the screening requirements, the background check processes, etcetera for bringing driver partners into the system,” he said.
Uber is going to allow riders to share live trip information with up to five trusted contacts so multiple sets of eyes ensure rides go smoothly. Its also adding to its app an emergency button that would automatically communicate the cars location with a 9-1-1 service.
And in April, the company announced it would adopt some safety moves it had long resisted. It will conduct fresh background checks on drivers at least once per year and mandate drivers take six-hour breaks – both of which Lyft already did.
But that might have been the easy part. How will Uber become substantially safer than Lyft?
Uber still falls short of what critics have said ought to be its safety standards. It locks passengers into arbitration when they suffer an assault. It doesnt require drivers to get fingerprints checked or even be vetted in person before they hit the road. (Lyft doesnt do those things, either.)
“The predominance of regulators believe that our screening processes are appropriate,” Khosrowshahi told me. “I dont think fingerprints would substantially change what happens with human behavior. . . . The predators in life look for dark corners. Our job is to tell the world that Uber has its lights on.”
Theres a lot of room to improve safety through technology, he said. When drivers log on to the app, for example, Uber has tested using facial recognition to confirm its actually the registered driver.
I ask if data could identify if someone is a bad or tired driver. “We are exploring technologies that sense irregular driving, either if a driver is driving too fast or too slow, but also it could sense irregular turns and sudden stops,” he said. “We have to make sure that the signal there is accurate, but I believe that could be an interesting technology solution to ultimately make the road safer.”
What about creepy drivers? “Were thinking about different ways. Like, do you put a camera in the car. . . . Im not saying were going to go there, but I want to explore it,” he said.
Video recording rides with a smartphone? Uber drivers are already allowed to use their own dash cams, but recording people through the Uber app would raise privacy concerns. “The stuff that were talking about is like Snapchat, in which is its automatically erased every single time, unless the driver or the rider says, Hey something went wrong,” he said. “If I knew that the data was going to be gotten rid of automatically, Id be filmed, sure. Why not?”
That would, of course, require permission and, most of all, trust – already in short supply for Uber. “The data sensitivity issues are so big that we have even hesitated from thinking about them. I say lets think about them,” he said.
I told Khosrowshahi that to win me back to Uber, Id need to be able to say – without a doubt – that Uber is safer than Lyft or a taxi. “Today are we? I cant say for sure,” Khosrowshahi said.
Thats a problem. Why doesnt Uber prove it by disclosing accident and assault rates? All customers have to go by now are media accounts. “How do you define an incident?” Khosrowshahi said. “But were working on that now.”
Neither Lyft nor the taxi industry share that data, either – perhaps because they all fear looking bad. But Khosrowshahi said Uber will open up over time. “You show what youre doing. You show improvement, or you show where you have a problem” he said.
Thats transparency we dont typically get from Silicon Valley. “Yeah, its risky,” he said.