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Uber rolls out new safety initiatives, along with charm offensive. Be skeptical.

A man examines a vehicle at an Uber recruitment event in March 2016 in Los Angeles. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)
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Uber chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi has been extra busy lately making himself the kinder, gentler face of the ride-hailing giant.

He was on NBC’s “Today” show on Thursday, discussing new initiatives that he says will improve the ride-hailing company’s safety record and make Uber more accountable to the public.

“The old days are over,” Khosrowshahi said, dressed in a sweater and jeans. “Our intent now is to get things right.”

Has Uber’s day of reckoning arrived?

Khosrowshahi said that the company had taken steps to monitor driver backgrounds more closely and enhance the ability of a passenger to contact authorities in the event of an emergency, including setting up a pilot program in Denver that reports the caller’s location, car model and driver name.

On the company’s website, Khosrowshahi explained further, saying that in the past, the company has run repeated background checks on drivers only in those jurisdictions where annual updates were required. From now on, however, the company will conduct annual background checks and vehicle checks every year regardless of whether such a legal obligation exists. The blog also says Uber is investing in new technology that will almost immediately alert the company to new criminal offenses committed by a driver, such as a DUI arrest.

All of that’s nice to hear, and at least stylistically different from former Uber boss Travis Kalanick’s famously brash approach. But with Uber, it’s wise to remain skeptical.

Uber, like almost every Silicon Valley tech giant, has a record of ignoring concerns about the collateral damage that comes with its disruptive business model. It was built on skirting regulation, avoiding the sort of licensing and fees that legacy taxi and limousine companies had to comply with, dealing with safety issues only after they arise and employing an ever-churning army of marginally employed people willing to work, in some cases, for less than minimum wage.

On Wednesday, Khosrowshahi met with D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) to announce new features intended to make Uber the only app anyone might need to get around by car, bicycle or mass transit. As The Washington Post’s Faiz Siddiqui reported, Khosrowshahi also couldn’t resist taking a subtle knock at Bowser’s plan to tax ride-hailing services to help pay for the District’s share of new dedicated Metro funding.

The District is not just for ride-hailing anymore

Khosrowshahi, whose on-air interview Thursday lasted about six minutes, more or less acknowledged the company’s past bad behavior while addressing issues such as regulation, safety and securing customer data.

“I welcome regulation. Regulation has been a part of Uber’s life because we’ve been part of transportation authority,” Khosrowshahi said. He went on to say that the company works with city regulators to “follow the rules” wherever it goes.

When challenged by his host’s remark that this has not always been the case, Khosrowshahi said that in the past Uber “largely” followed the rules.

“We were not perfect,”  Khosrowshahi said.

No one’s perfect. In Uber’s case, that’s meant failing to timely report a massive hack of customer data, allegedly blaming human error for lapses in its self-driving program that were actually the fault of its technology, setting up a software program called “Greyball” to thwart regulators, and allegedly stealing trade secrets from a competitor, to name just a few instances.

In regard to last month’s fatal crash involving a self-driving Uber vehicle in Arizona, Khosrowshahi said the company is undergoing a top-to-bottom audit of safety practices. But he also said the fatal crash has not diminished the company’s commitment to developing a fleet of autonomous vehicles someday. At the moment, the robotic cars are like “student drivers” and just need more time to learn, he said.

“Ultimately, self-driving cars will be safer than human drivers,” he said.

From the archives Is Uber the next big thing that goes kaput? This guy thinks so

Khosrowshahi also said that the company has already effected a profound change in the toxic, boys-will-be-boys corporate climate that existed inside the San Francisco-based company. And he suggested Uber and other tech companies like Facebook built their platforms in the first place for “idealistic” reasons.

Sounding a little like Spider-Man, he said, “I think that Silicon Valley is understanding that, with building these platforms comes the responsibility to make  sure that those platforms are being used for good.”

Perhaps the best exchange occurred right at the beginning of Thursday’s interview, when “Today” host Savannah Guthrie asked Khosrowshahi how he had traveled to the studio.

“Take an Uber to get here?”

“I walked over,” Khosrowshahi replied. “It’s very convenient.”

“Oh, my gosh, well, good — you told the truth.”

—This blog has been updated to clarify Khosrowshahi’s remarks on continuously monitoring drivers; a previous version suggested incorrectly that this would involve monitoring trip data. 

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