Company / division: Uber
A good reminder that even when an announcement is made, it often takes weeks if not months for it to actually take effect – Uber announced its move from San Francisco to the Phoenix area in December, but only now is it launching self-driving rides for paying customers in Tempe, a Phoenix suburb. In addition, we still have the disingenuous claims from the governor of Arizona that California was somehow not “open to business” for self-driving cars, despite being the home of the biggest trials in the country. The reality is that Uber wouldn’t comply with applicable regulation and made the decision to leave the San Francisco area rather than comply as others have done. For now, that must feel like good news for Uber – it gets to test its cars without the scrutiny or reporting requirements which would have been imposed in San Francisco. But whether this ends up being a good thing for the drivers and pedestrians of Arizona remains to be seen.
How Uber got into this human resources mess – Recode (Feb 21, 2017)
Some great reporting here from Johanna Bhuiyan, with lots of digging behind the scenes into not just the corporate culture at Uber but more specifically the HR department and its lack of resources over the last several years, which likely contributed to the events Susan Fowler wrote about this week. It’s fairly clear that Uber underinvested in some of the aspects of HR not related to hiring and firing, but also that CEO Travis Kalanick continues to drive the company culture very much from the top down, including in a number of negative ways.
A former Uber employee’s disturbing claims of workplace sexism reignite calls to #deleteUber – Recode (Feb 20, 2017)
On the one hand, this is an awful set of accusations regarding Uber and a culture of misogyny and damaging internal politics, and on the other I suspect most people who follow Uber won’t be surprised. The company has long been known for a bro culture which starts at the top with Travis Kalanick, and it seems to have done very little to change that culture. Corporate cultures are very powerful things, and very hard to change once established. Uber early on created a culture of intense competition both internally and externally – a culture where winning at all costs is what matters – and no matter what executives have said in formal settings since, their early actions have spoken much louder, and it appears that the culture at Uber is deeply toxic, especially for women. Travis Kalanick has predictably responded with feigned outrage, despite the fact that at the very least his direct reports were aware of the specifics here, and of course he’s directly responsible for the company culture that allows these things to happen. I’m glad an investigation will be led by Arianna Huffington, who is outside the hierarchy at Uber but on its board, and I’m very curious to see what it shows. A whitewash will go down terribly, but anything short of a serious shakeup is likely to be seen as insufficient.
Uber’s public Q&A with drivers was a disaster – The Verge (Feb 17, 2017)
Uber’s relationship with drivers has often been contentious, and it appears that even when the company is trying to “listen” to its drivers more, things often go wrong, as in this case. The big problem is that there are simply too many deep-seated frustrations and problems in Uber’s relationship with its drivers for them to be substantively addressed during such a public Q&A session, and Uber’s management should have known this. Without first establishing a level of trust and ongoing communication over a longer period of time, these occasional opportunities become venting sessions for drivers who feel like they’re not being heard, which makes them unproductive for all concerned. Uber needs to do better at really listening to its drivers regularly (something it sounds like Jeff Jones does at least try to do semi-regularly in smaller groups), but more importantly it needs to get better at actually addressing their big concerns.
via The Verge
Consumer Watchdog asks California to take Uber’s self-driving trucks off the road – Recode (Feb 9, 2017)
This is what you get when you build a reputation for flouting regulation: people don’t believe you when you claim you’re operating within the bounds of the law. Uber ignored the regulations around its self-driving cars in San Francisco until its DMV registrations were revoked, and now Consumer Watchdog says Uber subsidiary Otto can’t be trusted either when it comes to its self-driving trucks. As I’ve said repeatedly, Uber’s flouting of taxi regulations was a very different animal from its disregard for regulations concerning autonomous vehicles – in the former case, it had consumers on its side and could make a strong argument for increased safety, but that’s certainly not the case when it comes to autonomous vehicles. And yet both its past anti-regulation stances and the San Francisco case will come back to bite it, as they are here. This is when unchecked narratives – especially ones grounded in reality – really become dangerous.
Avis Budget Group to Supply Uber Drivers With Zipcars (Feb 8, 2017)
Two alternatives to traditional car ownership come together here, as Avis/Budget provides Zipcars to Uber drivers on an hourly basis. This deal could help expand Uber’s base of potential drivers beyond those who already own a car including among those who only want to drive part time, as well as dealing with the sometimes thorny issue of insurance. The big car rental companies are each trying to figure out how they fit into these new models – Enterprise has been approaching carmakers with offers to help them manage ride sharing fleets, and now there’s this deal between another of the big names and Uber. Meanwhile, some of the big carmakers themselves have been buying or taking stakes in smaller new rental companies as a way of hedging against a future of less car ownership. Though a lot of the disruption in this space has been driven by startups coming in from outside the industry, each of the legacy players has an enormous vested interest in ensuring a strong role in the future models too.
Pittsburgh officials are criticizing Uber’s “one-way” relationship with the city — Quartz (Feb 7, 2017)
The remarks quoted here are very much in keeping with those reported a few weeks back (also by Quartz), but they go a lot further. For one thing, these are on the record comments from senior officials, not sourced reporting based on a public records request. It’s increasingly clear that Pittsburgh officials are fed up with Uber’s attitude as it operates in the city, and this is one of the handful of cities where Uber is supposed to be working most closely with local authorities. That’s not a great sign for Uber’s potential to have good working relationships with other cities going forward, especially as it seeks special dispensation to test autonomous vehicles. Note also this story from the Verge yesterday about Uber’s legal battle with Seattle over unionization.
Amazon is fond of making announcements around cool but generally far-off concepts around the end-of-year holidays as a way of giving its brand a boost just when people are thinking about buying lots of stuff online. The timing here may be a coincidence, but it certainly won’t hurt Uber to have some flying car stories out there at a time when its brand has taken something of a knock in the US from the immigration brouhaha. Flying cars are probably the only thing Uber is working on that’s even further out than its autonomous cars in terms of timelines – hiring a NASA engineer to head the project is a great PR move, but there’s no chance we’re seeing anything like this in any American cities anytime soon. Take all the regulatory hurdles associated with autonomous cars and then put them in the sky and you have some idea of what these VTOL (vertical take off and landing) vehicles would have to overcome to go into production, even with human drivers/pilots. And as with autonomous driving, Uber’s cavalier attitude towards regulation doesn’t give me lots of confidence that they’re the ones I want pioneering this technology.
Uber has been by far the tech company hardest hit by the combination of its overall relationship with Trump and its response to the immigration actions last week, in some cases perhaps unfairly. But it was Travis Kalanick’s position on one of Trump’s advisory councils, and his apparent complete willingness to be close to the administration, which set the context for all that followed. Without his perceived indifference to what many others in the tech industry have seen as a deeply flawed administration, I suspect Uber’s actions over the past week wouldn’t have been seen in the same light, and as such his position on the advisory council was at least as much to blame as specific actions taken since last Friday. His departure from the council comes fairly late in the game, and so it’s not clear what difference it will make now – the narrative is fairly set at this point. But Uber has apparently lost 200,000 customers over this issue, and it’s a no-brainer that Kalanick would step down rather than continue hurting his business over this issue. It’s notable that Elon Musk remains on the council, and Tesla has also lost some Model 3 preorders over this, but he today defended his decision and stated his intention to continue to try to influence the situation from the inside rather than the sidelines. The fault lines in all this are fascinating to watch – we’re going to see lots more movement from tech companies as they seek to strike the right balance between constructive criticism and outright opposition to the administration and its policies.
via New York Times
One of those rare occasions when Uber isn’t able to bulldoze its way through local regulations and ultimately gets what it wants (see also Austin, Texas). In this case, it looks like Uber followed its standard playbook of working in a market despite opposition and even fines from a government which wanted better compliance with laws and regulations, but despite some recent concessions wasn’t able to convince the government to let it operate legally. As such, Uber is now backing out of Taiwan, and it’s not clear when it will be allowed back. Uber’s approach ruffles feathers, but it is often able to use pressure from drivers and riders to overturn opposition. Uber often paints those opposing its entry or presence in a market as wanting to thwart progress, and there’s no doubt the Uber experience is often an improvement over what it replaces, but that doesn’t always justify taking a stubborn approach to flouting local regulations, and occasionally that approach backfires. (On the same topic today, Uber is also struggling with regulation in India’s Karnataka province)
Google, Apple, Facebook, Uber plan to draft a joint letter opposing Trump’s travel ban – Recode (Feb 2, 2017)
It’s been interesting to watch the early separate responses of big tech companies to the immigration executive orders begin to coalesce into something more like a joined-up response, with both combined efforts on possible lawsuits in states like Washington, and now this letter from several companies. This letter could have focused merely on the practical aspects of the impact of the EOs on the companies and their employees, but goes further than that (at least in the the current draft) to address refugees and use words like compassion, going beyond mere self interest. The letter is measured and offers assistance in finding better ways to address the intended goals of the recent actions on immigration, which is at once less confrontational and also slightly condescending – I’m curious to see if the text evolves at all from this version. At any rate, it’s clear that we’re going to see ongoing engagement at various levels by the tech industry in this issue, including from a number of companies which participate in Trump’s tech councils.
This is Uber’s second partnership with a carmaker around autonomous driving – it already has one with Volvo, under which Volvo supplies the base vehicle along with redundant power supply and other features which is then plugged into Uber’s autonomous driving “brain”. It looks like the Daimler/Mercedes relationship will be similar. Both Alphabet’s Waymo and Uber have now made clear statements to the effect that they don’t see value in trying to build cars, a topic on which Apple still seems to be somewhat uncertain. What’s less clear is whether Uber, like Waymo, sees a role for itself in designing the hardware to go into cars, such as LIDAR. These tie-ups between carmakers and ride sharing services make plenty of sense: if autonomous driving is going to have a role in the near term, it will likely be as part of ride sharing or ride hailing services, which have narrowly defined geographic areas in which they operate – that’s the same reason Ford’s aggressive 2021 goal is designed for a fleet scenario rather than retail sales. It’s also interesting to see a premium brand like Mercedes associated with Uber here – though limos were an important part of the early value proposition for Uber, the focus has since shifted well down market towards UberX and Uber Pool.
The tech industry’s response to the Trump administration’s executive orders on immigration has predictably become a competitive dynamic, with Uber customers boycotting the company over a perceived weaker response to the situation than major competitor Lyft. This BuzzFeed piece does a nice job drilling down a bit and separating the rhetorical and practical responses of both companies to the immigration moves, which is more nuanced than the boycott implies. But this raises two other big points. Firstly, to what extent will a failure to stand up for certain causes start to be used as a weapon against companies? We’re already seeing both a backlash against Uber from those who oppose the immigration ban and a backlash against Starbucks from those who dislike its commitment to hire more refugees. No wonder tech companies have been reluctant to take a stand – after such a divisive election, there are large chunks of every company’s customers and potential customers on each side of the issue, and these issues are complex. Secondly, how interchangeable are Uber and Lyft really, to the extent that a temporary boycott might shift meaningful usage from one to the other in a permanent way? I’ve argued in the past that the nastiness that’s characterized competition between the two stems from their fundamental lack of differentiation, which makes them that much more vulnerable to perceived differences and makes them fight that much dirtier to get and keep customers.
Silicon Valley’s responses to Trump’s immigration executive orders, from strongest to weakest – The Verge (Jan 28, 2017)
This is a good summary of the responses from the tech industry so far to President Trump’s executive orders on immigration from Friday. It also does a nice job sorting the responses by strength – there’s quite a range in the responses, from those focusing narrowly on the practical impacts on employees of each company to those issuing broader moral condemnations of the policy. This certainly won’t be the last we hear on this topic. It’s notable that as of right now Amazon is one of the major holdouts among the big consumer tech companies.
via The Verge
These numbers get crunched every year, and are always an insight into the sometimes complex relationship between tech companies and the US government, as well as the very different strategies pursued by the various companies – Apple spends far less than some of its peers (less even than Facebook, which is a fraction of its size), while Google is always a big spender. The other thing I’m always struck by is the relatively tiny size of the spending – even Google’s $15.4m lobbying spending is minuscule in the context of its overall business – Apple’s spend was a fraction of a hundredth of a percent of its revenue for the year. It’s also interesting to see which issues the companies lobbied on: Apple lobbied mostly on technical issues directly related to its business, while Google lobbied more broadly on trade and immigration policy as well as several technical topics. All this will obviously potentially get a lot more complicated under the new administration, which has so far had a much more adversarial tone towards big tech companies than its predecessor.
When Their Shifts End, Uber Drivers Set Up Camp in Parking Lots Across the U.S. – Bloomberg (Jan 23, 2017)
Along with its distaste for regulation, the other big narrative that dogs Uber is its treatment of its drivers. This piece stops short of saying that Uber mistreats its drivers, but provides quite a bit of detail on those drivers and their habits, including the fact that a number sleep in their cars at night, while others regularly sleep in hostels and motels rather than traveling home between shifts. The article also says that half of its driving gets done by full-time drivers, despite Uber’s marketing to those who are looking for a “side hustle”. The pressure for Uber to treat at least these full-time drivers as employees with better benefits isn’t likely to go away anytime soon, and one of the biggest questions around Uber is whether it will ever be able to afford to give them what they want as it reaches the point where it drives towards profitability.
Key Google executive heads to Uber – CNBC (Jan 20, 2017)
We’re not seeing anywhere near the same hysteria over this move from Google to Uber as we saw around Chris Lattner’s recent move from Apple to Tesla. In fairness, Singhal left Google a while back rather than making a direct switch, but the move is in some ways very similar – a senior engineer working on key products at a pure tech company is moving to a car-centric tech company. No-one seems to think Amit Singhal leaving Google is a sign that things are going wrong there, in contrast to the reaction to Lattner’s departure, which just highlights the power of narratives – Lattner’s departure from Apple taps into a powerful present narrative, while Singhal’s doesn’t. A few years back, when there was a cluster of departures from Google in quick succession, this was a story, but not today – that reflects both overall perceptions of these companies, but also the fact that people often do leave in clusters, often for similar reasons, but not always because they’re unhappy. Often, it’s just that they’ve been there for a long time and want a change of scenery or a new challenge. It’s nice to see this hire being seen in a more rational light. Update: as Recode points out, there are actually two hires here from Google, not just one, which just reinforces the point about narratives above.
Uber has often been willing to flout regulation in order to stake a foothold in a market, at which point it typically turns its customers into advocates and makes arguments about the contribution it’s making to the local economy in a bid to win formal approval from local authorities. This case brought by the FTC alleged that Uber had exaggerated those benefits significantly – it claimed NYC Uber drivers earned a median income of over $90,000, but the FTC found that under 10% of drivers earned that much, for example. Because Uber settled the case without admitting formal wrongdoing, there is no legal confirmation here that Uber lied, but that almost doesn’t matter. To the extent that Uber gets a reputation (accurate or otherwise) for lying about its economic benefits, its whole “better to ask for forgiveness than permission” strategy starts to break down.
U.S. Department of Transportation announces a new committee focused on automation – TechCrunch (Jan 11, 2017)
If there’s one thing that’s become very clear to me this week as I’ve attended the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, it’s that autonomous driving is a vastly more complex proposition than many of the claims from its various proponents would suggest. All autonomous driving technology is not created equal, and governments and regulators have lots of thorny issues to resolve before widespread autonomous driving can become a reality. The good news is that the US Department of Transportation seems to understand that and is taking steps to understand all the implications, working with many of the players likely to make it a reality in the coming years. I hope this work continues under the incoming administration, because it’s critical.
This article highlights two things: first, Uber still dwarfs Lyft, with 78 million rides in December to the latter’s 18.7 million. Secondly, both companies are still growing ridership at a rapid pace. That’s important because although this sometimes feels like a zero sum game, it clearly isn’t, at least not yet. The overall pie is still growing, and even though Lyft’s slice is far smaller, that’s growing too. The question is how long both the overall growth and individual companies’ growth will continue.