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Uber CEO Q&A: When rape happens in an Uber, who’s responsible?

Uber is a ‘reflection of society,’ says ride-hailing chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi spoke to The Washington Post's Geoffrey Fowler about the company's first-ever safety study disclosing sexual assaults on rides. (Video: James Cornsilk/The Washington Post)

Uber provided many numbers this week when it released its first-ever safety report, tallying thousands of incidents of sexual assault and death among its drivers and passengers.

Now come the questions the 84-page report didn’t answer.

Chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi sat down with me in Uber’s San Francisco headquarters to follow up on an interview last year in which he told me safety was his No. 1 priority. We spoke this time about what he’s learned — and what Uber’s responsibility is for the very real-world impact of its business.

On Uber, hundreds of incidents of rape go unreported to police

When someone gets raped in an Uber, what are Uber’s obligations? Khosrowshahi’s answers have it both ways. Uber is working hard — leading the entire industry, he says — to reduce the rate of assaults to as close to zero as possible. And it’s the first company to bring this level of transparency to the problem.

Yet sexual misconduct is a “societal problem,” he said. Uber doesn’t think it needs to tell the police about incidents reported to it. (Law enforcement was involved in only 37 percent of Uber’s known rape cases, the company reported.) So far, Uber hasn’t even taken responsibility for the medical bills and lost wages of the victim drivers whom it doesn’t treat as employees.

Uber is at a point where it knows more about sexual assault cases in many communities than the local police. And this makes it a grand experiment in whether technology can solve a serious “societal problem.”

Edited excerpts from our conversation below.

Uber discloses 3,000 reports of sexual assault on U.S. rides last year in its long-awaited safety study

You reported 3,000 Uber drivers and passengers were sexually assaulted in 2018. How did you feel when you first heard that number?

It’s a big number when you first see it, and it’s still a big number. There’s no getting used to 3,000 reports of assault. Now, that’s within the context of billions of rides, and 99.9 percent of our rides start and finish without any kind of incident.

As a company, if we are going to stand for safety, we have to first be transparent. Transparency drives accountability, and then accountability drives action.

Two-thirds of the reported cases of rape in Ubers were not reported to the police. Why is that number so low?

Because sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes. We believe it should be up to the survivor as to whether they want to report it to the police. And we will provide all of the tools to help facilitate that interaction. But it’s ultimately our policy to be survivor-centric.

These people have taken the first step by coming to Uber. Why doesn’t Uber then encourage them to go to the police? Or let the police know in some form?

We certainly encourage them to contact RAINN [the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network], for example, and make sure that they get the right counseling and the right information as to what their next steps are. And then it’s up to them to make that decision.

I think our responsibility is great, it is enormous. But I wouldn’t for a second pretend to make these decisions on a stand-alone basis. We have worked with over 200 advocacy groups to understand what to do. We run a platform, but it’s ultimately taking input from the advocates and understanding what the best survivor-centric responses are. And their advice is this: The survivor should decide.

When rides go wrong: How Uber’s investigations unit works to limit the company’s liability

Have you ever gone to law enforcement about a specific driver, one in which you’ve seen a pattern of behavior, even if it’s not been reported by the victim?

I don’t know. If we do get a report, we pull the driver off the system until we can figure out exactly what the nature of that report is.

About half of the assaults reported are from drivers. Given that these folks are not your employees — they don’t get health care and other kinds of insurance from Uber — what are you doing to support them?

We support our drivers just as we support our riders. We make sure that they have access to, first of all, all the same tools — the 911 tools, the check tools, etc.

As we think about our drivers going forward, we do think that there is a third way where we can provide our drivers with minimum wage guarantees and health care to some extent and protections. You know, the laws of the land are one where if you’re an employee, you get a bunch of protections. If you’re not, you get no protections. And we’re completely open to a dialogue of a third way that’s befitting this new gig economy as well.

But right now, you’re not paying for any of the driver victims’ medical bills?

Not specifically. They get all the help that they need, but they're responsible for their own medical bills at this point.

And you’re not paying for any lost wages or anything during their recovery?

Nothing I'm aware of.

Could better or different kinds of background checks, like fingerprint checks, have stopped some of these assaults from happening?

We've looked into this. We have vehicular checks, criminal records and then continuous background checks as well. So if something happens between the last kind of official background check, we deactivate our driver. We think that is a comprehensive solution and we don't believe that fingerprinting would change things materially one way or the other.

The question is: How did these people fall through the cracks? This is thousands of cases.

When you're dealing with billions of rides, you get thousands of potential incidents. And it's our job to take those thousands of incidents to zero or as close to zero as we can. And we are investing in safety tools, criminal background check tools, etc. at a level that I don't think anyone else is in the industry.

What’s it going to take to get the assault rates lower?

There's so much. We're testing a lot of things.

We’re investing in some potentially controversial technologies like audio — allowing a rider or a driver to essentially record audio of that ride. The hypothesis is that criminals or potential criminals, that they look for dark areas. We are — very carefully, because there are privacy issues here — piloting these kinds of technologies.

Uber plans to start audio-recording rides in the U.S. for safety

Have you piloted video cameras?

We are piloting dash cam videos in some parts of the U.S. as well. And again, that could be a part of the solution or it could be on top of other solutions as well.

Is there anything unsafe inherent in the design of Uber? You’re connecting untrained non-employee drivers with passengers through software.

Any time two people come together, it can be a great interaction or not a great interaction. Humans are complex. Humans connect when in bars. They connect in hotels. They connect in cars.

I think there are broader issues than Uber issues, but we have to do our part. A first step is helping start a dialogue.

Can a software platform ever really engender trust?

It’s not just software. We do a vehicle safety check. We do a background check. We do continuous background checks. There have been over a million drivers who have wanted to get on our platform and have been rejected. Since we started the continuous background checks, 40,000 drivers we’ve essentially kicked off the platform.

With investments that we are making in technology, the platform continues to get safer.

Do you think these assaults are a societal problem or an Uber problem?

I think that Uber is at the size now where we are a reflection of society. And sexual assault, sexual misconduct is a societal problem.

We are a platform that connects people. And we have to keep making the kinds of investments to make sure those connections are constructive and safe.

Let’s make this personal. You’re at a party on a Friday night and a friend of yours is drunk. It’s one in the morning. Do you feel comfortable putting her in an Uber alone?

I do because the incident rates are incredibly low. But if I could, as a friend, I would probably walk down the block with them and I would probably drop them off at home as well. So I don’t think it’s being in an Uber or not. But if someone is drunk, I think it’s up to a friend to take care of them wherever they go.

What do you say to the people for whom making that decision resulted in assault?

It’s our job to do better. We’ve been open about these issues. They continue to plague society and we are a reflection of society. And we’re doing our part and we will get better.