For a while there, Uber seemed to have the whole world hoodwinked…
By Rita Smith
This article originally appeared in the Toronto Taxi News. It is reproduced here with permission from the author, Rita Smith.
Rita Smith is a writer and communications consultant whose career was launched at Taxi News almost 30 years ago. She has worked at the municipal, provincial and federal levels of government as well as in multiple roles in media and public relations. Her respect for hard-working cab drivers is endless.
Taxi drivers are owed giant apologies by so many groups, it’s hard to keep track any more.
I have read so many ridiculous, misguided, inaccurate and plain pathetic media articles about Uber in the past four years, I am at risk of becoming inured to the lunacy. I’ve lobbied politicians and pleaded with cops. I’ve debated family members and friends. I’ve pestered media members until they ran away from me.
Their minds are impenetrable; people want so desperately to believe you can get something for nothing, you can’t overcome their magical thinking.
We should never give up thinking skeptically, though, and challenging the lunacy; because what happened to taxi drivers could happen to anyone in any industry. The corruption and massive breach of business and political ethics that have infected the vehicle for hire industry can – and will – affect EVERY industry in future. Uber’s business model and philosophy is a cancer that must be removed from commerce. Cabbies, unfortunately, have been the canaries in the coal mine.
First, it appears that Uber’s terrible, horrible, very bad year was triggered by a blog post published in February by Susan Fowler, a female engineer at Uber. Her treatment was so egregious that her recounting of it set in motion a chain of events that forced CEO Travis Kalanick to resign.
What, you may ask, could possibly have happened to motivate Uber to send Arianna Huffington off on a fact-finding mission and hire former US Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate its toxic culture?
Well, this woman’s boss sent her an online message saying he would like to sleep with her. Instead of replying “F--- you,” or even just “No,” or perhaps taking documentary evidence in the form of a printed chat message to a lawyer, she went to Human Resources, which did not help her. She was sad. She did not quit, though.
The next event, in a display of sexual discrimination so breathtakingly cruel I cry just thinking about it, Uber bought leather jackets for a team of male engineers, but they did not buy any for the women.
I contrast these dire circumstances with those of cab drivers whose stories I have heard over the past four years: one driver I met had his own apartment in spring of 2014. By summer, he was sleeping on a friend’s couch. By fall, he was homeless.
I wish the legal, licensed taxi drivers who’ve had their lives decimated by Uber got even the tiniest percentage of the media attention female engineers get when propositioned or deprived of leather jackets – but nobody cares. Not even Susan Fowler, who is clearly completely comfortable with the thought of wrecking the lives of thousands of law-abiding cab drivers and their families, but doesn’t have the guts to say “no” to a lecherous boss. I am sorry for the pain she was content to cause taxi drivers, and I am sorry we are even the same sex.
Second, cab drivers are owed an apology by technology writers at every outlet that covers Uber. These writers are supposed to be smart and prescient and have their finger on the pulse of all the trends which are going to affect us in the years ahead. In fact, they are so out of touch with business reality that they shouldn’t even be allowed to predict whether VHS VCRs will overtake Betamax, or whether online music shopping might be more popular than vinyl records.
Here’s a quote from a ReCode article on self-driving cars written by Johana Bhuiyan:
“Uber’s future depends greatly on solving self-driving. It’s what will keep the ride-hail company relevant as more automakers produce their own autonomous vehicles. But taking drivers out of the equation would also increase the company’s profits: Self-driving cars give Uber 100 percent of the fare, the company would no longer have to subsidize driver pay and the cars can run nearly 24 hours a day.”
Let’s just skip over the fact that Uber has NEVER turned a profit, and is on track to lose more than $3 billion in 2017.
Uber doesn’t own, or maintain, or insure, ANY cars.
The cars are owned by the drivers, who absorb every dollar of the cost of maintaining them no matter how much or how little revenue they generate.
Imagine what Uber’s bottom line would look like if, in addition to buying leather jackets for female engineers, they also had to purchase, insure and maintain their own cars. And then pay drivers. Uber’s business model is based upon persuading car owners to share their cars with Uber, while those drivers assume 100 percent of the risk of the business. While this appears to be far too futuristic a concept for a tech writer to grasp, P.T. Barnum was able to sum it up succinctly over 100 years ago: “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
Third, the mainstream media.
There aren’t enough column inches in Taxi News for me to recount the ways in which the mainstream media missed the boat on Uber.
I’ll just focus my comment on one recurring inaccuracy which is repeated in almost every article I read about Uber around the globe (England, Australia, Canada, the US, India and various Asian and African nations): how fairly or unfairly Uber “pays” its drivers.
“Uber doesn’t pay drivers!” I groan every time. “Drivers pay Uber! The driver does all the work, invests all the time, pays all the vehicle maintenance, and gives Uber 25 percent of the money he earns. Without drivers, Uber has nothing. The drivers are Uber’s only source of revenue. Uber doesn’t pay drivers; drivers pay Uber!”
If they don’t understand that, they don’t understand anything about Uber. Why would we trust anything else they report? I am sorry we can no longer trust the mainstream media on much of anything.
Where to start? The betrayal of the taxi industry by politicians around the globe has been complete, quick and starkly hypocritical.
From John Tory in Toronto to David Cameron in England to Daniel Andrews in Australia, politicians who are either air-headed or corrupt just rolled over backward for Uber, re-writing or eliminating safety standards that have been decades and millions of dollars in the making and shredding the social contract with drivers that supported consumer protection.
Nobody puts it better than Hamilton taxi driver and writer Hans Wienhold:
“All of the most expensive elements of a secure taxi industry were never about safety at all. Now we see clearly that none of these things ever had anything to do with safety: they were just power grabs and cash grabs. No one will ever buy the politicians’ BS again.”
People like cheap, there’s no arguing that.
When Uber first arrived, there was much ado about cartoon cars on cell phone screens and free ice cream and free puppy cuddles and hot women drivers.
Really, though, what it all comes down to is that Uber is cheaper than taxis, and people like cheap.
For the first two years after Uber arrived we read lots of stories about free water and candies in the car and happy grandmothers driving for extra cash.
When the first stories of sexual assault started showing up, a little dark cloud appeared on the horizon.
When an uninsured Uber driver killed a six year old girl in San Francisco, concerns were raised.
When London, England announced they were averaging almost one sexual assault per week and Londoners began referring to Uber as “rape roulette,” things began looking serious.
And then, when a woman in Texas was made a paraplegic in an accident with an uninsured Uber driver, people sat up and took notice.
Back in the day, when I was reading dozens of articles about Uber around the globe as part of my job, I felt some sympathy for these people.
Now, I confess, sympathy has evaporated. Now, when I come across complaints about Uber in my Twitter feed (“My Uber driver refused my service dog! My Uber driver left me at roadside! My Uber driver showed up at my apartment and told me he has feelings for me!”) I tend to reply sarcastically, “But you saved some money, so it’s all good, right?”
I particularly love the fact that there is a campaign underway by some women right now to get security cameras in Uber vehicles….now, consumers want to combine “cheap” with “safe.” They want it all; but as Austin Powers would say, “Some things just aren’t in the cards, baby.”