7 Evil Things Uber Did in 2014 You Should Know Before Your Next Ride

The car-share company had a banner year of malevolence, hectoring and blunders.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick
Photo Credit: Debby Wong/Shutterstock.com

While still popular with consumers, Uber’s questionable reputation dogs it, and deservedly so. This is a company that wears its hyper-aggression on its sleeve, regularly battling dissatisfied customers, governments, critics and competitors. Uber’s short history is defined by tales of misogyny, skullduggery and sketchy drivers. But the notoriety seems to have no effect on the company’s $41 billion bottom line. Not even the infamy of gouging customers in the wake of Hurricane Sandy slowed its rapid growth.

Still, earlier this year it appeared that Uber was making an honest effort to revamp its image, becoming warm and friendly, instead of callous and creepy. Still, putting lipstick on this pig didn’t work, as the list of misdeeds just got longer and more disturbing. Here are the seven worst of 2014.

1. Uber gouged customers on New Year’s Eve.

Uber started the new year on the wrong foot when it unexpectedly jacked up the price for some tipsy holiday revelers. Customers were upset by the hefty fares caused by the company’s “dynamic pricing”—as much as $350 for just a few miles.

Dynamic pricing is a tactic Uber uses that increases the cost of taking a car when demand is surging. It uses an algorithm that calculates the price at any given moment, similar to the tactic airlines and hotels use when they raise prices during popular travel dates. Uber says dynamic pricing helps to balance demand and availability, ensuring cars are always available. The company says the higher prices also encourage its drivers to get on the road since they can make more money during the surge.

To its credit, Uber does let customers know when prices will surge through its smartphone app, and customers must agree to the price before the car is called. But customers still felt they were taken advantage of, and many took to Twitter to voice their complaints. This past New Year’s was not the first time Uber customers felt the pinch of surge pricing, and it won’t be the last. Look for this controversy to renew itself in a couple of weeks.

2. Uber created fake rides to steal away competitor’s drivers.

Lyft, Uber’s chief rival, accused the company of some shady tactics, like calling in fake rides and trying to steal drivers away. Uber, it seems, gave some of its contractors credit cards and burner phones and had them create fake Lyft accounts to request rides in the hopes of recruiting Lyft’s drivers.

Lyft also said that Uber requested and canceled rides to impair its operations, which resulted in the loss of some 5,000 rides. Uber also went after Gett, a newly established competitor in New York City, in a similar way.

Soon after Lyft aired its complaints, Uber claimed it was actually the victim and that Lyft had canceled nearly 13,000 Uber rides. Uber also claimed that Lyft planted the whole sabotage story because it was trying to force Uber to acquire it.

Verge, the high-tech news site, could only confirm that Uber hired contractors called “brand ambassadors” for the sole purpose of recruiting rival drivers with incentives—including cash—to join Uber. The contractors were given a playbook that explained the process of requesting rides, enticing drivers to switch to Uber, even getting them to sign up with Uber on the spot. Verge also found an online form that contractors used to request the phones, credit cards and recruitment kits.

3. Uber admits to sabotaging Lyft’s fundraising efforts.

In a profile published in Vanity Fair, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick admitted that he tried to tamper with Lyft’s attempts to attract new investors. Kalanick told writer Kara Swisher that Uber actively dissuaded potential investors in Lyft by contacting them and pitching Uber as an investment alternative.

We knew that Lyft was going to raise a ton of money,” said Kalanick. "And we are going [to their investors], ‘Just so you know, we’re going to be fundraising after this, so before you decide whether you want to invest in them, just make sure you know that we are going to be fundraising immediately after.'" It’s part of what seems to be an unabashed effort to kneecap Lyft.

In the cutthroat world of finance, it’s probably not unprecedented that a company would try to charm investors away from a rival, but it’s not every day you hear a CEO bragging about such callous business practices.

4. Uber exec threatened journalists.

Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith reported that Emil Michael, a senior vice president of Uber, suggested that the company start digging up dirt on its media critics. According to BuzzFeed, Michael apparently wanted to smear the reputation of a female journalist, Sarah Lacy, a writer for PandoDaily who wrote a piece accusing Uber of sexism and misogyny. She vented her disgust that Uber encouraged “model type” female drivers in France to dial up the sexiness for riders who requested “hot chick” drivers. Lacy wrote that she deleted her Uber app and encouraged other women to do so. 

However, Michael made the mistake of suggesting this smear tactic in front of journalists, including a BuzzFeed editor and Michael Wolff, at a dinner at Manhattan’s Waverly Inn. Also present were Arianna Huffington, actor Ed Norton and Uber CEO Kalanick. There, Michael played with the idea of spending “a million dollars” to hire opposition researchers to help Uber fight back against the media. He said that Uber could look into “your personal lives, your families,” referring to its critics. Michael later said he believed his comments were off the record, he regretted saying them and that they did not reflect the position of the company.  

5. Uber says it is not responsible for its driver’s actions.

Because its drivers are not employees, but contractors, Uber says it is not responsible for their vile and dangerous behavior when they’re not actively engaged in transporting passengers. Particularly shocking is their response after the death of a six-year-old San Francisco girl who was struck by an SUV driven by an Uber driver last New Year’s Eve.

Uber immediately denied any responsibility or liability, putting out a smarmy statement that “this tragedy did not involve a vehicle or provider doing a trip on the Uber system.”

Later Uber updated its statement, admitting that the driver was a contractor, but it seemed focused on distancing itself from him. “[W]e have deactivated his Uber account. The driver was not providing services on the Uber system during the time of the accident,” the company said.

It turns out that the driver was between rides and therefore not on “official” business at the time of the accident, but he did have his Uber app on, meaning that he could take rides much the same way a taxi has its “on duty” lights on. Uber sometimes requires its drivers to have commercial car insurance, but California’s Public Utilities Commission has given the company permission to forgo such insurance.

A wrongful-death lawsuit has been filed against Uber.

6. Uber charges more for “safe rides.”

Consumer watchdogs warn that when you agree to Uber’s terms and conditions and get into one of their cars, you’re signing away your expectation of safety.

"They're giving Uber a free pass—up to death,” lawyer Chris Dolan told CNET. Dolan, who represents the family of the girl killed by the Uber driver, warns that the company’s fine print attempts to absolve itself of liability. "It completely covers their ass and says, We're not responsible for anything that happens to you, period,” he says. "It says, You can be raped, you can be killed, you can be murdered, and it's not our responsibility."

So, in response to a growing chorus of concerns over passenger safety, Uber has started a premium “safe rides” fee, which is a charge for screening drivers. Uber introduced the $1 per ride fee last April for UberX, its lower-cost car service, basically making its customers pay for background checks, something the company should have put in place from the start. And while potential drivers for UberX now get this check, there is still no formal interview process for vetting candidates.

“Uber should bear the responsibility of conducting its own background checks,” Rick Singer, CEO of GreatApps.com told MarketWatch. “When was the last time that you went to purchase a coffee or any product or service, and were charged a fee like that? Does Starbucks charge a background check fee to make sure that your barista is not psychotic?”

7. Uber allows its drivers to deny service to the blind.

After more than 30 blind customers said they were denied Uber services, the National Federation for the Blind sued Uber in a California federal court, saying it was in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The organization said the blind "face the degrading experience of being denied a basic service that is available to all other paying customers."

In one incident, an UberX driver actually put a service dog in the trunk of his vehicle, ignoring the objections of the dog's owner after he realized where his dog was. In another incident an Uber driver had a heated verbal exchange with a blind person about to enter his car with a service dog. When the blind person tried to explain the dog was a service animal, the driver allegedly cursed and drove away, nearly striking the dog and hitting a friend of the passenger, who is also blind, with an open car door.

Uber's response to these allegations is that because Uber drivers are independent contractors, the company is unable to oversee their conduct. Which is pretty much Uber's response to everything.

Cliff Weathers is a former senior editor at AlterNet and served as a deputy editor at Consumer Reports. Twitter @cliffweathers.

 

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