Silicon Valley’s latest start-up may not be around much longer. Uber, a corporation that offers access to cheap reliable transportation has faced an onslaught of controversy in the past few weeks. Allegations that users of the service have been sexually assaulted, killed or abducted have cast a cloud over the multi-billion dollar operation. Perhaps what’s most alarming about Uber’s string of public relations blunders were revelations about its corporate culture.
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick co-founded the company in 2010 in San Francisco as a convenient way for people to order and pay for a cheap taxi service online. Since then the company’s value has soared past $40 billion (US) and the service is now in use in cities around the world. However, Kalanick generated negative attention from the media after making comments that have been widely deemed as sexist and arrogant. In one remark, Kalanick joked in a GQ interview that his newfound success had made him more attractive to women. He subsequently made a cringe-worthy pun based on his company’s name, calling it “Boober.” Kalanick’s statements were problematic enough, but the company continued to spiral downwards.
During a dinner with a Buzzfeed editor, Uber’s vice president Emile Michael claimed that he was willing to spend millions of dollars digging up incriminating information about journalists who have made negative comments about the corporation. Michael focused many of his complaints on Sarah Lacey, the editor of a Silicon Valley website PandoDaily who has taken Uber to task for sexism and misogyny. Buzzfeed quoted Michael as stating that the company would “look into ‘your personal lives, your families’ and give the media a taste of its own medicine.”
Aside from these unfortunate PR mistakes, safety issues have also plagued the company. Most recently a woman in India who used an Uber taxi accused the driver of raping her. In response Uber executives called the crisis a “growing pain” and claimed it was yet another challenge to expansion that the company would have to overcome. However, to many individuals this was a substandard response. India has had an ongoing debate over a growing number of sexual assaults, particularly after last year’s case of a woman being gang raped on a bus. Uber’s failure to recognize the social and political context in the countries where it operates has created a potentially dangerous environment for customers, women in particular.
Almost anyone who has a driver’s license and a car can become an Uber driver simply by signing up online.
Many of the safety concerns about Uber stem from accusations the company has a lax protocol when it comes to background checks. Almost anyone who has a driver’s license and a car can become an Uber driver simply by signing up online. This contrasts sharply with the requirements to get a taxi driver’s permit in cities like Toronto, where a series of training courses, fees, and criminal background checks are required. Uber has pledged to improve its background check system, and ensure the safety of its passengers, but when it comes to marketing the damage may have already been done. From accounts of women being forced into motel rooms, to drivers killing children, Uber still faces serious questions about its safety record.
Uber will have to shed its sleek masculine image and address the concerns about safety and the allegations of sexism if it is going to regain the public’s trust. Movements to delete the Uber app have already been gaining momentum online and several cities including Toronto and Portland, Ore., are taking steps to ban the service. There is no doubt that Uber provides an affordable transportation alternative that many people love. However, the realities of providing a commercial service that can put the public at risk cannot be overlooked. In industries where the customer is particularly vulnerable, as is the case with taxis, safety should inevitably be a top priority for everyone involved.