John Surico is a freelance journalist and researcher who covers transit and open space for a number of outlets, including The New York Times and VICE. He’s currently a MSc candidate in Transport and City Planning at University College London.
Uber is determined to put its reckless image in the past as it rolls out a host of new security-related features this week.
Uber’s growth into the biggest ride-hailing company on the planet—with 3 million drivers, and many more million more worldwide—has been a wild ride. Under co-founder and former CEO Travis Kalanick, the company tangled with multiple local and national governments over tightening regulations. It faced accusations of fighting stricter background checks for its drivers, as well as a class-action lawsuit over its failure to protect women riders. And Uber’s autonomous vehicle program was involved in the death of a pedestrian earlier this year, marking a deadly new turn for the company’s public persona.
Putting Uber on a less-harrowing path—or one, at least, paved with fewer negative headlines—has become somewhat of a mandate for Dara Khosrowshahi when he assumed the role of CEO a year ago this month, after Kalanick was ousted from the position by major investors. His brand-calming skills were put on display on Wednesday morning in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, where Khosrowshahi celebrated his one-year anniversary as the company’s chief executive by announcing a bevy of new safety-related features.
New York City makes an apt stage for this milestone. It’s Uber’s largest American market, as well as the site of its most recent regulatory defeat: Last month, New York became the first major city in the country to effectively limit any new for-hire vehicle registrations for a year, a cap that could inspire other cities worldwide to follow suit.
The event had the air of a Jobsian Apple reveal, with black curtains, experiential demonstrations, and hyped-up brand engagement. But the theme was decidedly sober: “We want Uber to be the safest transportation platform on the planet,” Khosrowshahi told the audience, after taking the dim stage. “Safety should be our number-one priority. We have to, as a company, stand for safety.” With the new measures in place, he repeatedly said that the brand would become the “industry standard” for safety.
Those new measures include, amongst others, features that share a driver’s location with trusted contacts; two-factor authentication to log into the app; masking a rider’s exact location and phone numbers; and getting a free Uber home, should the rider be involved in a crash. Before giving the floor over to Sachin Kansal, Uber’s head of product management, Khosrowshahi also listed several changes that the company announced earlier this year, such as ending the policy of mandatory arbitration in claims involving sexual harassment (as a CNN investigation revealed in April, more than 100 Uber drivers had been accused of it) and introducing the “Rider Safety Toolkit,” an app feature that offers riders the option of sharing trip information with loved ones.
Kansal said that the company will roll out its most recent software—which allows both riders and drivers to share an Uber’s location with 911 responders—to four more major U.S. cities: San Diego, Washington, D.C., Boston, and Phoenix. The pilot began in Denver and has since been implemented in several other cities and counties nationwide. Soon, Kansal said, it will stretch beyond the border. “Later this year, we are going to enhance 911 calling using real-time location sharing in a few cities in Mexico, and we will cover much of Mexico next year,” he said.
Uber’s Rider Safety Toolkit will also be revised for drivers and delivery partners, like Uber Eats, Kansal said, with a host of new add-ons. The “panic” button will be available to all drivers using Android in the U.S. starting today, and iOS in coming weeks. A speed alert will pop up on drivers’ screens, should they go beyond a specific street’s limit. And to avoid exhaustion, drivers will now be reminded on the app that it will shut off for six hours if they work beyond the allotted 12—a requirement that went into place in February. Hands-free messaging, which will allow drivers to accept rides and message users with voice commands, will also be rolled out soon, and Allstate-backed insurance will be extended to Ubers in select areas.
Another new feature, Ride Check, will automatically text riders if the vehicle slows down for an extended period of time; if the delay is just a quick pit stop, you can say that, but if something went awry, the rider is given a template of options. Building upon that, the company will also now use a smartphone’s GPS and sensors to monitor sudden decreases in speed and detect crashes. If anything irregular is spotted, the rider will be asked if a crash had occurred, and then offered the same options; Uber agents will then follow up with a phone call.
Such technology is not necessarily brand new: General Motors’ OnStar service has long had automatic crash detection built into its systems, and most smartphones in this day and age have GPS and location-sharing abilities that 911 dispatchers can use to track down where you are.
But Uber’s safety focus is still noteworthy, as it reflects how ride-hailing security concerns have evolved as these services have become ever more deeply enmeshed in the lives of their users. Fears about suspicious drivers that dominated the early days have grown to include anxieties over cybersecurity, privacy breaches, and an ever-expanding suite of human and non-human driver behavior.
The event also served notice that Uber intended to refocus on its original mission—getting people from Point A to Point B—rather than hedge its bets on, perhaps, riskier investments. Earlier this year, the company significantly scaled back its AV pilot program, and the fate of the company’s efforts to field autonomous vehicles—once deemed an “existential” priority by Kalanick—didn’t come up at all on Wednesday. Instead, the Khosrowshahi-led company has indicated that its future lies in multimodal services: to compete with the likes of Bird and Lime, it acquired JUMP, the dockless electric bike company, and an Uber scooter is now on the horizon. (Arch-rival Lyft is also getting in to the scooter game.)
But do these safety initiatives really add up to an “industry standard,” as Khosrowshahi proclaimed? That was the question I posed to Jason Levine, the executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. “It is certainly commendable that Uber would make it easier for its customers to more quickly dial 911 when they are in danger either because of an Uber driver’s behavior, or because of a crash,” Levine told me over email, “but this announcement appears to be addressing the symptom as opposed to the cause of Uber’s safety problems.”
There are still safety loopholes that the company could close, Levine argued. For example, he said, Uber still allows cars that were recalled by auto manufacturers to operate on the platform, posing a potential danger to riders who unknowingly get into these vehicles. In 2017, a report found that Uber knowingly leased recalled cars in Singapore, and at least one of them later caught fire. This past February, an investigation by California’s KTVU found that out of 70 ride-hailing vehicles they tested, at least one in six had an open safety recall issued.
In response to those investigation’s findings, an Uber spokesperson said, “We regularly remind drivers to check for open recalls and to take the necessary steps to get them fixed. Road safety is the responsibility of everyone who uses the roadways.”
Levine also said Uber could go further in eliminating the requirement for all riders to enter into a binding arbitration agreement—aside from claims involving sexual harassment, as mentioned. According to NPR, mandatory arbitration is still required in all other disputes, including those involving payment, and discrimination. Uber isn’t unique in that regard, says Tony West, Uber’s chief legal counsel; in fact, this is common corporate practice.
Uber spent several years developing—and living up to—a buccaneering image as the bad boy of shared mobility. Twelve months into Khosrowshahi’s regime, things look very different. But the company may have more work to do before the brand is synonymous with safety. “Until Uber deals with larger issues,” Levine said, “these type of headline-grabbing app updates are Band-Aids, and not cures.”