Company / division: Uber
TechCrunch wasn’t the only publication to go with a headline like this, and it makes sense: Uber’s diversity report in many ways mirrors those from other big companies in the tech industry, and doesn’t appear noticeably worse on several of the big metrics. Indeed, if you were reading the report itself including the commentary about the various efforts Uber is engaged in, you’d get the impression that Uber was a forward-looking, tolerant, diverse, and vibrant place for people of all backgrounds to work. And that’s the problem with these reports – they say nothing about what it’s actually like to work at the company if you’re in one of the underrepresented groups, and we know from recent news that Uber can actually be pretty awful if you’re a woman, especially in a technical role. So even though Uber comes off not much worse than other big tech companies from the report alone, that shouldn’t be all that reassuring. Since this is the first of these reports, we also have zero data about how things have changed in the past year, and whether they’ve got better or even worse, something some past female employees have suggested. But numbers alone don’t tell the story, and that’s why the investigation – flawed though it is – is critical for evaluating and hopefully changing the other aspects of Uber’s culture as regards diversity which this report says nothing about.
Uber Press Call Highlights Huffington’s Conflict of Interest (Mar 21, 2017)
One of the more troubling things about the sexual harassment investigation at Uber is that Arianna Huffington, who is helping to lead that investigation, is also currently acting as both Uber and Travis Kalanick’s most visible public defender, undermining claims that the investigation is independent. Either Huffington is committed to getting to the bottom of what has happened (and may still be happening) at Uber, or she can defend it and its leadership, but she can’t do both. That she reiterated those public defenses of Kalanick personally on this press call today just reinforces that point. Meanwhile, the call itself revealed little that was new, by all accounts – a previously promised diversity report is indeed on the way, and both the investigation and the COO search are ongoing, with nothing new to report for now. Meanwhile, Kalanick himself was apparently too busy with that COO search to appear on the call, while Uber’s (female) HR manager was available. (The headline here is mine – the headline on the Axios piece linked below focuses on the diversity report.)
Uber president Jeff Jones is quitting, citing differences over ‘beliefs and approach to leadership’ – Recode (Mar 20, 2017)
This is the first high-profile departure from Uber’s executive ranks which is being explicitly described as a response to the toxic culture at the company – Amit Singhal was forced out, while Ed Baker’s reasons for leaving were at least somewhat opaque. But Jeff Jones is, at least by his telling, leaving precisely because of the toxic culture and an unwillingness to stay at a company where he clearly doesn’t feel comfortable. Travis Kalanick’s explanation – which I think can probably be dismissed as face-saving – is that Jones decided to leave after Kalanick announced that he was hiring a COO. The fact that Recode had sources saying Jones’ reason for leaving was cultural even before Jones himself spoke out certainly reinforces that fact. Kalanick’s response just reinforces the sense that he hasn’t changed at all, and that if Uber’s culture is going to change meaningfully, that COO had better be a very strong individual, able to stand up to Kalanick and force real changes.
Uber’s autonomous cars drove 20,354 miles and had to be taken over at every mile, according to documents – Recode (Mar 16, 2017)
One of the great things about autonomous driving technology is that regulators require companies to keep track of how those cars are performing, and in the case of California that data is published annually, providing a great insight into how each company’s technology is advancing. However, occasionally, internal documents on testing emerge that provide lots of detail too, and such documents have apparently been leaked to Recode (and BuzzFeed). There’s lots of interesting data here, and it suggests progress is being made and Uber is driving lots of miles in its various cars. It’s worth comparing some of the numbers here for Uber with those reported by other companies in California by way of putting them in context: Uber says its rate of disengagements per mile is 0.8, for example, whereas Waymo’s cars in California are now at a rate of 0.2 per 1000 miles, or some 4,000 times better. Now, Waymo’s cars have been driving in the state for much longer than Uber’s, but that’s still a massive discrepancy in performance. And it’s also worse than Tesla’s rate of 182 disengagements over 550 miles driven in 2016. So it appears Uber has a long way still to go in autonomous driving, and it’s therefore remarkable that it’s already using these cars to ferry real passengers around Pittsburgh.
This feels like something of a slime ball move on Uber’s part on two fronts: firstly, trying to move the court case with Waymo out of open court and behind closed doors; and secondly, essentially trying to push the case off its back and onto Levandowski’s. I had said previously that the course was going to be fascinating for the details it would provide about how Uber developed technologies and how it would defend against what look like fairly solid allegations, but if it gets its wish here we won’t get to see any of that. But I think it’s the attempt to make this a case about an employee rather than the company that seems particularly sleazy – if the allegations are indeed true, then Uber and not Levandowski benefited the most, and making this seem like a dispute between an employee and former employer feels like a total misrepresentation.
via USA Today
Uber Gears Up to Block Bid to Form a Union in Seattle – WSJ (Mar 13, 2017)
As with Uber’s eventual exit from Austin over fingerprinting, it’s threatening to leave Seattle if its drivers there join a union, and is also actively trying to dissuade drivers from doing so in a range of podcasts and other messages arguing that unionization could be bad for them. Seattle is something like the 20th largest city in the US, and a disproportionately influential one given its status as a tech hub and bastion of somewhat left-wing values. So if Seattle went this way, other cities might follow, and Uber is therefore fighting unionization there tooth and nail. This is just one of several fronts on which Uber is fighting its drivers, from unionization to employment status and benefits to pricing. And although it argues it’s acting in drivers’ interests here, it’s clearly mostly acting in its own, possibly to their detriment.
California DMV: Humans soon no longer required in self-driving cars – San Francisco Chronicle (Mar 10, 2017)
Michigan’s autonomous driving laws already allow testing of cars without drivers, and given that these two states are home to much of the testing going on, California clearly feels it needs to keep up. Those Michigan laws assume that carmakers are going to comply with all applicable regulations, and therefore require that any testing is done by or in partnership with those carmakers, while the proposed California law has no such restrictions (logical given the biggest local testers are tech companies and now legacy automakers). In both cases, the states are deferring somewhat to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to set the overall rules and to some extent approve cars for autonomous driving without a driver. This Chronicle piece quotes a spokesperson from Consumer Watchdog, which has been particularly harsh (perhaps deservedly so) on Uber/Otto, but also seems to be one of the main organizations demanding tougher regulation of autonomous driving in general in California. What’s interesting is that there are so few voices on the other side of this rapid push towards autonomous driving.
Alphabet’s Waymo filed an injunction against Uber for allegedly stealing intellectual property – Recode (Mar 10, 2017)
The fact that Waymo is suing Uber isn’t new, but this new step of filing for an injunction is, and that’s important because it could speed things up considerably. Judging the case in full could have taken months if not years, but a request for an injunction will involve convincing a judge in a much shorter space of time that there’s enough merit to the case for him or her to intervene in the near term. So we’ll know rather sooner how solid Waymo’s case here is, and will likely also get additional details from both sides about exactly what’s been going on. Importantly, we’ll get more from Uber than its brief initial statement about the accusations being baseless, which will be intriguing because from where I sit the forensic evidence looks fairly compelling. As I’ve said before, though, the toughest aspect of this for Waymo and its lawyers is proving that Levandowski actually used the files he downloaded rather than simply his memories of work he’d previously done.
California and Michigan have to be the two states where the most testing of autonomous vehicle technology is being done, with the former home to most of the tech companies in the space and the latter the home of several legacy automakers. The FT is here citing data from the California DMV, which you can see in its raw form here. What’s fascinating is the mix of companies here, as I’ve said before – there are several traditional carmakers (VW, Mercedes, Nissan, BMW, Honda, Ford, and Subaru), several big names from the tech world (Waymo, Tesla, Uber, Baidu, Faraday Future, and Cruise [now part of GM]), and a variety of other smaller companies. But Waymo has by far the largest number of cars and miles driven (and most accidents). But the California DMV is certainly the source of some of the most interesting data on self-driving testing anywhere in the world right now.
via Financial Times
Uber has issued a statement announcing that it is ceasing the use of its Greyball platform for evading law enforcement and regulators, and that it’s in the process of responding to “organizations” (presumably regulators and law enforcement personnel in the cities where the platform previously did operate) who have enquired about it. This is striking because Uber’s initial response to the New York Times report was brazen in its lack of contrition – it had acted as though it saw nothing wrong, but has clearly now had a change of heart. The wording of today’s announcement certainly seems to concede that it did use the tool for evading regulators in the past, and even suggests it may continue to do so in the near future because of unspecified elements of how it works, which seems bizarre.
Didi has opened a self-driving lab in the U.S. with famed Jeep hacker Charlie Miller – Recode (Mar 8, 2017)
This seems like a smart move – even though there are lots of talented engineers in China, the nexus for development of autonomous driving today has to be either Silicon Valley or Detroit, so putting a base of operations in the former makes a lot of sense. There’s no evidence here that Didi is otherwise expanding into the US (after all, its new partner Uber is dominant here and that likely wouldn’t go down well), but that’s not to say Didi won’t try to hire from the other companies in the area. It’s already hired Charlie Miller, who came from Uber itself and was best known for having hacked a connected Jeep while it was driving a while back. The competitive intensity in this market, especially over hiring, is only likely to ramp up over time and things will get increasingly nasty as a result (and we’ve already got two lawsuits underway).
This is interesting data which confirms something that I’ve always suspected but never had more than gut feel to go on: that matters of principle rarely cause large scale and lasting changes in consumer behavior. In other words, even with the high profile and almost continuous coverage of everything going on at Uber at the moment, only relatively small numbers of people seem to be switching to Lyft, and they seem to be doing so fairly temporarily. The article cites spend data from a company called TXN which shows only a brief and switch of spending from Uber to Lyft in a couple of cities, which appears to represent roughly 5-10 points of market share at its peak. Convenience, habit, peer pressure and a myriad of other factors all likely weigh as heavily or more so in decisions to use a service or not, and Lyft’s big problem is that in many cities it’s simply not as big as Uber is. In the two cities cited here, it looks like Uber had two thirds and four fifths of spending at its nadir following the negative news, and that’s likely representative of many other cities where both operate (and of course there are still cities where Lyft doesn’t operate at all despite its recent expansion). That makes it tough to capitalize in a major way even when Uber appears to be stumbling significantly, especially because those stumbles haven’t affected the user experience in the slightest.
Small follow-up on yesterday’s Information piece about Uber trying to hire a number two for Travis Kalanick. That news is now official, though Kara Swisher here also reports that Uber is looking to put another woman on its board, and that the board would prefer the COO to be a woman as well. That echoes both what I said here yesterday and what I implied last week in my Techpinions piece on CEOs and corporate culture: fixing Uber’s problems will be a lot easier with a woman in a senior executive role.
In my Techpinions column last week, I argued that it’s enormously difficult to change corporate culture when the CEO is part of the resistance rather than driving the change, and also pointed out that the cultures that have often been least friendly to female employees are those without women in senior leadership roles. Uber fits the bill perfectly on both counts here, so bringing in a number two to Kalanick, ideally a woman, would be a great next step in helping turn Uber’s culture around. This article suggests Kalanick is looking to bring in a number two, but there’s no explicit mention of bringing in a first female exec. I’m still not convinced he’s capable of making the changes he needs to make, so if that second in command isn’t a powerful person in her own right, there’s a danger that this ends up being just more window dressing.
My apologies if you’re getting sick of Uber news this week, but here’s yet another. This one is tough to read, because the tie to the current investigation and fallout from the Susan Fowler post is more tenuous than with Amit Singhal – there’s a brief reference to an allegation of impropriety in this report, but it’s not substantiated or detailed. And unlike Singhal, who had barely got his seat warm, Baker had been at Uber for three years and been an integral part of its growth over that time. In general, as that Information article I just linked to indicates, he’s been a very well respected member of the team at Uber, so I’m inclined not to over-emphasize the link to sexual harassment issues. It’s possible that the timing is coincidental, though it’s obviously a particular loss coming right now with everything else that’s going on.
I think there may have been one day in the past week when there wasn’t some new negative story about Uber, and that’s just based on what I’ve written about here. The latest is reporting from the New York Times that Uber has a program called Greyball which identifies app users who may not be who they seem and serves up fake cars or otherwise obfuscates the real activity going on with drivers in the area. Although there are some legitimate reasons for Uber to do something like this – for a time, competitors were frequently ordering and canceling cars – it was deliberately used to evade law enforcement in places where Uber was breaking local laws. Its statement in the article suggests it sees nothing wrong with this behavior, but characterizes this last scenario as “opponents who collude with officials on secret ‘stings’ meant to entrap drivers”. One might, I suppose, make a similar argument about police running speed traps, but radar detectors are illegal in some places anyway. The legality of what Uber did here isn’t 100% clear, but it’s yet another example of Uber’s disregard for regulations and willingness to do almost anything to flout or circumvent them. On the other hand, it appears Uber’s PR department has lost the will to fight on yet another front and isn’t even disputing this story.
via New York Times
Well, well: a rare case of Uber caving to regulators and doing as they ask. It had seemed as though Uber had given up on San Francisco and California in general when it moved its self-driving Volvos to Arizona late last year, but it now appears that it is actually going to go through the steps necessary to gain DMV approval for testing self-driving cars in California after all. This all feels like a totally unnecessary rigamarole for all concerned – Uber has likely gained nothing and lost quite a bit of trust as a result of all this, and now it’s back where it started.
I know I used the phrase “another day, another ugly story about Uber” yesterday, but it’s literally another day and yet another story today. This time, it’s CEO Travis Kalanick recorded by one of his drivers who asked him some questions about pricing for the black car tier Uber offers. I’d actually argue that most of the conversation is pretty reasonable on Kalanick’s part, but right at the end he apparently loses his temper and we get to see how he really feels about all this, reinforcing the sense that Uber doesn’t really care about or understand its drivers and their needs. Here’s the point I made with regard to the sexual harassment allegations, and will make again here: as long as Kalanick himself doesn’t model the behavior he wants to see from his employees, the culture at Uber is never going to change, and it’s starting to feel like he simply can’t model that behavior because he doesn’t believe in it and isn’t capable of behaving in that way. If that’s really the case, that’s a pretty strong argument for him stepping down and allowing someone else to take over who can provide the cultural leadership his company needs – it’s hard to see how any of this gets better unless he does.
Uber’s SVP of engineering is out after he did not disclose he left Google in a dispute over sexual harassment allegation – Recode (Feb 27, 2017)
Another day, another ugly story about Uber. This time, it’s that its brand-new SVP of engineering, who joined Uber just last month, appears to have left Google under a cloud surrounding allegations of sexual harassment. There was an initial investigation and apparently some planning towards firing Singhal, but as he resigned proactively those plans were never carried out, which certainly helped keep the allegations under wraps. But Singhal apparently failed to inform Uber of these circumstances when he left, and he’s now been asked to resign from Uber. I suspect that, were Uber not having the month it’s having, Singhal might have survived, but in the circumstances there was no way he could be allowed to stay. Singhal’s hiring was seen as a coup when he arrived (see the comment linked above), and it’s into such a senior role I wonder how Uber is going to fill the gap. Clearly, it though that was less important than making a quick, clean break here.
During the very brief period when Uber’s self-driving cars were operating in San Francisco, one of them ran a red light. However, the company at the time engaged in some audacious spin and claimed the car was being driven by a human at the time and that the incident just highlighted the benefits of autonomy. Now, however, the Times is reporting that the car was supposed to be driving itself at that time and the human driver merely failed to intervene in a timely fashion. If validation were needed that the California DMV made the right decision when it stopped Uber from testing its cars without a license, here it is. But this is also yet another case of Uber acting like the rules that apply to everyone else don’t apply to it, and outright lying when it gets caught. And that in turn makes it very hard to believe it when it claims it’s in compliance with rules, and it only has itself to blame. What a terrible few weeks for Uber, pretty much all of its own making.