I stopped riding Uber long ago and switched to its rival Lyft. Perhaps you did, too.
To try to win us back, Uber’s new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi recently met me in his office — and for an Uber ride around San Francisco.
He didn’t sell me on Uber’s market dominance or its cost-conscious “express pool” option. He didn’t bring up its flying cars (though they have new plans for that, too). He spoke with bated breath about … safety.
Uber’s 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 — 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 wasn't wearing seat belts in the back, and I didn’t even know that I was making the driver feel unsafe.”
Khosrowshahi comes across as an uncommonly cautious guy for a start-up CEO, but don’t let that fool you: He’s brought significant, sometimes painful changes to Uber. He’s 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 Uber’s 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 I’d have thought would blaze that path. But for Uber to get us to re-download an app we’ve already deleted, it’s going to have to offer something we can’t get from Lyft or a taxi.
“It fundamentally comes with a better product and a better service,” Khosrowshahi said, sitting in Kalanick’s old glass-enclosed War Room, now renamed the Peace Room. Uber, he said, sweats details of the ride-hailing 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.)
Khosrowshahi said Uber’s road to redemption lies in safety. “If you can tell a friend Uber's the safest mobility platform around, can you beat that as a reason?” Khosrowshahi said. “And by the way, it's price competitive and the ETAs are fine and the cars are good. But it’s safer! Short term, it's costing us and I don’t think our message is quite getting out there. Long term, if we're the safety leader I think you're 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 Uber’s 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 he hired a former top U.S. transportation official to advise it on safety. Uber’s going to need us to think it’s safe if we’re 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. It’s also adding to its app an emergency button that would automatically communicate the car’s location with a 911 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 doesn’t require drivers to get fingerprints checked or even be vetted in person before they hit the road. (Lyft doesn’t do those things, either.)
“The predominance of regulators believe that our screening processes are appropriate,” Khosrowshahi told me. “I don’t 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.”
There’s 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 it’s 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? “We're thinking about different ways. Like, do you put a camera in the car? … I'm not saying we're 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 we’re talking about is like Snapchat, in which is it’s 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, I'd 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, let’s think about them,” he said.
I told Khosrowshahi that to win me back to Uber, I’d need to be able to say — without a doubt — that Uber is safer than Lyft or a taxi. “Today are we? I can't say for sure,” Khosrowshahi said.
That’s a problem. Why doesn’t 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 we’re 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 you're doing. You show improvement, or you show where you have a problem,” he said.
That’s transparency we don’t typically get from Silicon Valley. “Yeah, it’s risky," he said.
Read more from Geoffrey A. Fowler