Topic: Ride sharing
Lyft will be breathing a big sigh of relief over the finalization of this settlement, which has been in the works for months, and Uber probably is too. Even though the latter is the focus of a lot of news coverage of how ride sharing companies treat drivers, it’s worth remembering that Lyft has exactly the same relationship with its drivers, which it insists on treating as independent contractors rather than employees. Both companies have now fought (and in Uber’s case are continuing to fight) groups of drivers lobbying for employee status and the benefits that would come with that, and so far they’ve prevailed. Keeping this arm’s-length arrangement in place is critical for maintaining the current financial structure of the ride sharing market, and any change to employment status would have pretty severe effects on the business model, so expect these companies to continue fighting these attempts to reclassify workers tooth and nail.
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.
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.
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.
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’ve argued that the big car companies are actually participating pretty actively in the three big shifts occurring in their industry at this point, rather than just sitting idly by, and GM’s Maven business is a good example of some of that engagement, albeit on a fairly small scale. This new model doesn’t seem all that compelling – at over $1000 per month (including insurance, gas, and parking) it’s a little steep for a month’s Volt rental, which would cost you a fraction of that on a longer-term basis. But at least the company is experimenting. Other Maven services are a lot more interesting, and I had an interesting conversation with some of the team at the Detroit Auto Show in January. Maven Home is designed for high-end apartment complexes, for example, where owners get access to cars on an on-demand basis through their building, and GM is also doing interesting things with both Uber and Lyft separately.
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
Lyft looks to raise $500M as Uber stumbles – USA Today (Mar 2, 2017)
As I mentioned in covering Lyft’s rapid expansion into new cities in the first two months of the year, taking advantage of Uber’s current struggles is smart, but it’s going to be costly. This news that Lyft is raising more money is validation of that view, but may also be a sign that it work even harder to take advantage of this window of opportunity. That’s smart – Uber is especially vulnerable with both drivers and riders at the moment, and the differentiation between the two is so limited that as long as Lyft has the capacity it could take really meaningful share.
via USA Today
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.
A few weeks back, I wrote about Lyft expanding into 40 new cities as part of a 100-city push for 2017. Here’s the second part of that push, with another 54 cities launching today. Given what’s been happening with Uber over the past week or so, the timing of this massive expansion couldn’t be better from Lyft’s perspective – it’s now primed to benefit from the #deleteUber movement in many more places, given that it’s the only meaningful alternative to Uber across most of the US. Again, as I wrote in that earlier comment, this means Lyft is likely investing heavily in those new markets, which will push it further into the red at a time when it looked like it might be making progress towards profitability, but if this expansion helps it close the gap with Uber, then it’s almost certainly worth it.
via USA Today
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.
That’s two major carmakers who now plan to deploy their first autonomous vehicles in ride sharing fleets, with Ford already committed to rolling out its first self-driving cars in a similar scenario. This makes lots of sense – two of the biggest limitations of early AVs are going to be cost and restricted geographic use, so deploying them in ride sharing fleets where they can be limited to a narrow area and driven almost constantly creates conditions in which they can still be both effective and cost effective. I’m still skeptical that we’ll see these cars roll out in more than one or two markets in the timeframes mentioned here, and even then I think it’s quite likely they’ll require human drivers for quite some time. But all this also reinforces the sense that it will be many years until we see universally autonomous vehicles (rather than cars able to be autonomous within narrow confines), and also somewhat undermines Lyft’s claims of getting to 50% autonomous in its fleet by 2021.
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
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.
Although most of the attention Alphabet gets around cars is around its Waymo division, which is focused on autonomous driving, Google’s Waze group is also doing interesting things around another of the three major shifts happening in transportation: ride sharing and urban mobility. In this case, it’s not so much an Uber- or Lyft-like driver-provided service as a simple carpooling arrangement with a little compensation for the driver, but in that sense it has the potential to be more cost effective, using existing infrastructure to provide lower cost transportation and reducing congestion in the process. Google is building a ride sharing capability much more subtly and quietly than it is autonomous cars, but the former has far grater potential to make a big difference in disrupting traditional transportation in the near term.
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.
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)
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.