Automotive > Connected Mobility Blog

Pretty Faces @ Uber & Facebook

by Roger Lanctot | Aug 02, 2021

“Scott Galloway, a professor of marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business, compares the Uber chief to Sheryl Sandberg, ‘the pretty face’ that obscures the damage their firms are doing to society.”

So notes Maureen Dowd in her New York Times profile of Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi last week. It’s an amusing assessment that Khosrowshahi makes light of, but it captures the reality of what Uber brought to its drivers and customers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While global ride hailing operators such as Bolt, Yandex, and DiDi Chuxing were offering their drivers partitions to be installed in their vehicles, Uber was requiring drivers and passengers to wear masks and suggested that drivers roll down their windows. The result was a devastating hemorrhage of drivers and passengers that left Uber clinging to food delivery for survival.

It wasn’t enough that Uber has never been able to guarantee any particular quality of service, since it does not employ its drivers and does not own its vehicles. The onset of the pandemic revealed once and for all that Uber would not, could not do anything to protect either its drivers or its passengers from infection.

Dowd’s profile duly notes Khosrowshahi’s successful pivot of Uber away from his predecessor’s bro culture, hacking, and privacy violations. But in her report we find Khosrowshahi taking a Facebook-style passive stance regarding the struggles Uber drivers face trying to make a living on the platform.

He blames the drivers for their failure to make it work.

Says Khosrowshahi: “Our system doesn’t work for a certain percentage of drivers who can’t figure it out, who can’t understand how to make it work. I do think that for that percentage — and it’s probably 10 percent of our drivers but when you’re talking about 10 percent of a million drivers on the road — that’s a lot of people who want to earn and our system isn’t working properly for. I do think that we have to build better safeguards for people who can’t make our system quite work the way that they want to work, or we’re willing to work with regulators to have certain safeguards like minimum earnings.”

This vision is taking self-employment to the extreme. If you can’t make a living at Uber it’s your fault.

Forget about the misplaced tip revenue. Forget about the baffling incentives that come and go. Forget about the abusive passengers. Forget about being kicked off the platform for no reason. Forget about the insurance exposure. You’re master of your domain. Figure it out!

For passengers: Forget about the surge pricing. Forget about the long waits for a pickup. Forget about the dirty car, the surly driver, or the strange route to your destination. Forget about the rejected short rides. Forget about the lack of a partition.

Uber started out as a luxury product delivered largely by reasonably compensated, recently unemployed professionals. Today, it’s devolved to a more expensive service delivered unreliably by desperados unable to find something better or safer to do.

Dowd gets the core value proposition of Khosrowshahi right: a pretty face that obscures the damage being done to Uber drivers, Uber passengers, rental car companies, and taxi operators – or competing transportation services generally. Uber introduced us all to the Uber driver who attacks passengers and the Uber passengers who assault drivers. And Uber introduced us to the taxi or limousine driver that commits suicide amid the ashes of his once viable business. We even saw some Uber drivers off themselves.

Facebook, too, has done comparable damage to our civil discourse and democracy.

No longer a cause or a vision of future transportation, Uber is merely a business proposition. Khosrowshahi is punching a clock and placing bets, shifting chips between moving people and things for profit.

Uber was going to transform transportation. Now, it is simply another option. Having shed its scooters, electric bikes, autonomous cars, and flying car businesses and ambitions – Uber has distilled its essence to moving things in cars – booze, pharmaceuticals, people, and food.

Khosrowshahi tells Dowd that the current “tech-lash” is inevitable.

“’I think, just like Uber, some (tech companies) grew up too fast and some of them didn’t take responsibility for their power and I think now they’re being called to reckon, and I think it’ll ultimately result in a better, more balanced society going forward.

“’Sometimes the emotional takes over and I think that’s destructive but I think the age of ‘I built a platform, I’m not responsible,’ that time is over. And now the question is, what does the responsibility look like? Defining it and putting guard rails around it, I think that’s a healthy thing.’”

Uber missed its chance to protect its drivers and passengers during COVID-19. Khosrowshahi missed the chance to re-align or redefine Uber’s relationship with its drivers. The company appears to be incapable of taking charge and resolving the shortcomings of its own platform – as if the platform is a self-contained organism with a life of its own over which Uber exerts no control. Everyone should just figure it out.

A pretty face isn’t going to cut it at Uber or Facebook. It’s time for regulators to step in and institute minimum wages and other driver protections at Uber – as well as ensuring that Uber does not discriminate against passengers or neighborhoods. As for Facebook, I don’t even care any more. Do you?

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