Company / division: Uber
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.
This is a fantastic post about how tech companies hide behind that identity, and shouldn’t. Facebook is the obvious example that springs to mind, and does seem to be coming around on this point, but it applies to others too. Many tech companies abdicate responsibility, because responsibility means an imperative to act and self-examine, and most importantly to question the assumption tech is always a force for good. We need more of that questioning in 2017.
Three times growth from 2015 to 2016 is remarkable, and a useful indication of how fast this industry is still changing and growing. And yet peaks like this are still one of the biggest challenges for companies like Uber (and even Amazon, in a completely different way) – build your infrastructure for normal operation, and it’s tough to handle massive spikes in demand. Surge pricing helps a little, but you still can’t get out any more than your total number of drivers at any given time.
Uber asked a lot of Pittsburgh for its self-driving cars, and offered back very little — Quartz (Dec 29, 2016)
As I’ve said previously, Uber has a pretty complex relationship with the municipalities where it operates, often flouting taxi regulations and more recently also self-driving ones. In the case of Pittsburgh, Uber has at least worked with the city, but it now appears that it has been something of a one-way relationship. Ironically, the dynamic here is reminiscent of that between Google Fiber and cities, in which the latter have bent over backwards to help Google, whereas in autonomous driving Google (now Waymo) has been more cooperative, while Uber borrows its Fiber playbook.
Part of Uber’s PR push to counter the narrative that’s developed about its antipathy towards regulation is this kind of stuff, designed to showcase the positive impact Uber has on local economies. This Uber blog post cites a Boston Consulting Group study, and highlights the positive contribution made by Uber and other transportation platforms. Apple has successfully used a similar strategy – citing app developer jobs, for example – in arguing for its own positive economic impact.
Uber explains why app appears to continue tracking your location; other apps affected too | 9to5Mac (Dec 23, 2016)
There was something of a fuss when Uber was found to have changed its location settings in its iOS app to always share the user’s location. It now appears the explanation is benign – it’s the app’s Maps extension that’s to blame. But the fact that the issue blew up at all is an indication of skepticism about Uber’s privacy protections, especially given repeated stories about employees accessing user data in illegitimate ways.
Once San Francisco shut the Uber self-driving experiment down for flouting regulations, it was inevitable that it would move elsewhere. Arizona’s governor has courted autonomous driving trials, and is using the incident as a way to score points against neighbor California. But it’s worth remembering these are just 16 cars, and California was merely seeking oversight, not to block Uber here.
Uber stops San Francisco self-driving pilot as DMV revoked registrations | TechCrunch (Dec 22, 2016)
This seemed inevitable, and you have to wonder what Uber was trying to prove here. Uber’s cavalier attitude towards regulation has generally served it well, but I’ve felt ever since this imbroglio started that this was a step too far – fighting the taxi lobby is one thing, but rejecting oversight of potentially dangerous technology is quite another.
Uber’s Drive Into India Relies on Raw Recruits – WSJ (Dec 22, 2016)
There’s been so much focus on Uber in China, which is obviously a massive market for ride-sharing, and where Uber has ultimately had to concede defeat. But there are interesting challenges with regard to expansion into other emerging markets like India.
Uber to Your Friends and Snap Along the Way! (Dec 21, 2016)
Uber announced two new features – making a friend rather than a place your destination for rides, and a filter integration with Snapchat. Uber has always been open to partnerships, with Spotify and Facebook previous partners – it’s an interesting way to expand its reach and also keep people in the app longer.
The Tesla Advantage: 1.3 Billion Miles of Data – Bloomberg (Dec 20, 2016)
This is a huge oversimplification – Tesla’s cars aren’t entirely autonomous, and mostly use their limited autonomy on highways, whereas truly autonomous vehicles need to learn how to drive in far more complex urban environments. But having production cars actively using the technology certainly helps Tesla.
Uber may have long since outgrown the startup label, but its financial state continues to suggest its aptitude. Its loss-leading strategy to win market share doesn’t seem to have fazed repeated rounds of investors, but continues to generate headlines. The big question remains whether there’s a path to profitability anytime soon here, in well-established individual markets at least.
see also Bloomberg
Apple, Facebook, Google and Uber say they won’t help Trump build a registry of Muslim-Americans – Recode (Dec 17, 2016)
There’s growing consensus on this point now among the major tech companies, and thankfully little new noise from the Trump transition team about putting this particular campaign promise into action. Of course, that’s not to say it will never happen, or that the administration couldn’t build the registry itself, but it’s good to see tech companies showing some backbone on this point at least.
Uber plans to keep its self-driving cars on San Francisco roads despite DMV’s demand to stop – Recode (Dec 16, 2016)
This story has been characteristic of Uber’s disregard for regulations, which in the past have mostly been designed to protect the taxi lobby, but with self-driving cars moves into the realm of protecting drivers, passengers, and other road users. I suspect Uber will get a lot less sympathy from its users over these issues, and this approach will eventually backfire.
This article is from when it first became apparent that Uber might end up being one of the first companies to put autonomous vehicles on real roads with real passengers, back in September 2015. Even then, Arizona governor Doug Ducey was attempting to entice technology companies to do their testing in his state, a strategy that paid off in December 2016 when Uber moved its second self-driving trial from San Francisco to Arizona.