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‘I must fundamentally change and grow up’: Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s big apology

Travis Kalanick, founder and chief executive of Uber, delivers a speech at the Institute of Directors Convention in London in 2014. (Will Oliver/European Pressphoto Agency)
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On Tuesday evening, Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick sent every one of his employees — some 11,000 people — yet another apology.

It was in reaction to a six-minute dash cam video, obtained and published hours earlier by Bloomberg, showing Kalanick in a heated argument with one of his drivers.

View the video below; the argument starts at 3:45.

The conversation began amicably enough with Kalanick and the driver, Fawzi Kamel, shaking hands. Kamel asked about reduced fares “in general” across Uber’s various offerings. (As Bloomberg noted, an Uber Black ride cost $4.90 per mile in 2012. Now it costs $3.75 per mile.)

Kalanick explained he lowered fares to remain competitive against other ride-hailing companies, such as Lyft.

“We didn’t go low-end because we wanted to,” Kalanick said, referring to adding services such as Uber Pool to the original Uber Black. “We went low-end because we had to.”

“We could go higher and more expensive,” Kamel countered.

Then he continued, thrusting his finger at the chief executive and telling Kalanick that no one trusts him anymore.

“I lost $97,000 because of you; I’m bankrupt because of you,” he said. “You keep changing every day. You changed the whole business.”

“Bullsh‑‑,” Kalanick said over Kamel’s shouting. “You know what? Some people don’t like to take responsibility for their own s‑‑‑. They blame everything in their life on everyone else.”

He climbed out of the car, spitting “good luck” behind him.

“Good luck to you, too,” Kamel said, adding that Kalanick won’t “go far.”

The video quickly sparked outrage. One Twitter user summed up the online ire, writing: “Ju[s]t watched video of CEO of #uber, and all I can say is #deleteuber.”

Since the beginning of 2017, Uber has seen non-stop controversies from #deleteuber to accusations of technology theft. (Video: Daron Taylor, Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)

Kalanick’s apology, also posted to Uber’s website, began, “By now I’m sure you’ve seen the video where I treated an Uber driver disrespectfully. To say that I am ashamed is an extreme understatement.”

The language then grew increasingly melancholy, with Kalanick stating that the incident “cannot be explained away.”

He continued:

It’s clear this video is a reflection of me — and the criticism we’ve received is a stark reminder that I must fundamentally change as a leader and grow up. This is the first time I’ve been willing to admit that I need leadership help and I intend to get it.

It closed with Kalanick “profoundly” apologizing to Kamel and the “driver and rider community” as a whole. The entire letter is posted below.

Kamel explained his decision to push back in an interview with NBC News.

“Uber kept dropping prices every season to gain more ridership to satisfy their growth, and it didn’t matter to Uber if the driver is not even making minimum wage,” he said. “And the worst part is, they call us partners, [but] they make the rules, set the price, and they even choose the cars you can use.”

Of Kalanick’s statement, NBC News noted that the 37-year-old Kamel “did not seem satisfied with this apology.”

Via NBC:

He said that Uber Black drivers like him are expected to drive recent versions of certain models of car but have been squeezed by the company’s shift toward the budget end of the market.
He told NBC News that veteran drivers for Uber Black, which was Uber’s original service, should be treated with more respect because of their investment in high-end vehicles.

The language from the chief executive suggested the apology was inspired by more than simply the video.

Indeed, the past few months have not been kind to the company.

The biggest blow came in the form of a hashtag that spurred genuine action. After President Trump issued a travel ban against seven predominantly Muslim countries, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance staged a strike at John F. Kennedy International Airport. About 30 minutes after it began, Uber tweeted it was lifting surge prices at JFK International Airport.

Uber triggers protest for collecting fares during taxi strike against refugee ban

Quickly, #DeleteUber trended on Twitter. Sparked by this, some 200,000 people reportedly deleted the app in January alone (not too difficult an action when its major competitor Lyft is available in most major cities).

It didn’t help matters that, in December, Kalanick had joined Trump’s economic advisory council. Finally, after the social media campaign to boycott his company, Kalanick quit the council. In a memo to his staff, he wrote, “joining the group was not meant to be an endorsement of the president or his agenda but unfortunately it has been misinterpreted to be exactly that.”

After intense criticism over Uber's operations during a cab strike against Trump's travel ban, its CEO stepped down from Trump's economic advisory board. (Video: Reuters)

Mere weeks later, the company again found itself in an unfortunate spotlight when former Uber engineer Susan Fowler Rigetti wrote a blog post alleging systematic sexual harassment and workplace discrimination against women at Uber.

Kalanick tweeted in response.

He also hired former U.S. attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. to lead an investigation into these claims with the participation of Huffington Post founder and Uber board member Arianna Huffington and the company’s human resources chief, Liane Hornsey.

Why Uber is turning to Eric Holder in a moment of crisis

Somewhat buried by these stories were the company’s ongoing issues with self-driving cars.

In December, Uber was forced to pull a fleet of such cars from San Francisco just a week after deployment. The California Department of Motor Vehicles deemed the service illegal, as Uber didn’t have the required autonomous vehicle license.

During that week, though, one of Uber’s autonomous Volvos ran a red light, which was caught on video. The company originally claimed this happened as a result of human error, as every car in the fleet also had drivers onboard in case of emergency.

Later, internal documents obtained by the New York Times showed the problem to be a mistake in the car’s programming. The Times reported that “the mapping programs used by Uber’s cars failed to recognize six traffic lights in the San Francisco area.”

Compounding Uber’s woes was a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court in San Francisco against the company last week. It alleged Uber stole Google laser technology — called LiDAR — to build its autonomous fleet. As The Washington Post’s Michael Laris reported:

“Misappropriating this technology is akin to stealing a secret recipe from a beverage company,” according to a blog post from Waymo, the self-driving company created by Google parent Alphabet.
Waymo said the alleged far-reaching thievery — which it said was led by a former employee and involved the surreptitious downloading of 9.7 GB of confidential files and trade secrets — came to light in an apparently errant email.

An Uber spokesman said the company would “review this matter carefully.”

For all this, Uber’s net revenue seems to continue growing unchecked.

Kalanick’s apology struck a somber, self-reflective tone.

Here is the full text of the apology, which can also be found here.

By now I’m sure you’ve seen the video where I treated an Uber driver disrespectfully. To say that I am ashamed is an extreme understatement. My job as your leader is to lead … and that starts with behaving in a way that makes us all proud. That is not what I did, and it cannot be explained away.
It’s clear this video is a reflection of me — and the criticism we’ve received is a stark reminder that I must fundamentally change as a leader and grow up. This is the first time I’ve been willing to admit that I need leadership help and I intend to get it.
I want to profoundly apologize to Fawzi, as well as the driver and rider community, and to the Uber team.

This post has been updated.

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