Uber, most known for its car-hailing app, is a company steeped in seemingly endless controversy. Since its inception just eight years ago, the company now operates in 528 cities across the world and has shaken the taxicab industry at its core. So swift has Uber’s uptake been that taxi firms are finding themselves plunged into existential crises, with some going out of business. Furthermore, the company has come under fire for its internal operations, with accusations of rampant sexism, its constant resistance to industry regulation, and its aggressive tactics to beat out the competition.
Uber seems to have successfully shrugged off many of these issues, but its biggest PR challenge came in January 2017 when New York taxi drivers went on strike to protest President Trump’s travel ban on people coming from Muslim-majority countries.
The price customers pay to Uber drivers is set by the app, which changes in realtime and is based largely on the demand for cars at that moment. Uber customers can expect to pay a higher rate at busier times. Whilst New York taxi drivers were striking on the airport run, Uber announced it was dropping surcharges on its service for cabs in that locale, crossing the metaphorical picket line of which the conventional taxi drivers were a part.
This caused outrage and people took to Twitter to express their anger. The hashtag #DeleteUber began trending and to date, over 200,000 people have cancelled their Uber account in protest.
What was Uber’s game?
A couple of reasons for dropping the surcharge spring to mind. Given the company’s history outlined in the introduction of this piece, it is possible that Uber recognised the lack of taxi resource at that time and took advantage of it. And political statements aside, people still needed transport.
A second and more inherently political reason may be that the move was to endorse Trump’s controversial travel ban policy by undermining the strike action taking place. After all, Uber’s CEO was on Trump’s business advisory board at the time, before stepping down shortly after.
You can never go home
The Uber app is truly a beautiful piece of software. It offers a significantly improved customer experience when compared to a traditional taxi service. No more calling the cab office to be put into a queue to be assured by some croaky-voiced shift worker that your car will arrive “in 10 minutes”. Simply fire up the app and be in a taxi in minutes.
But being outraged by Uber’s questionable business practice whilst at the same time enjoying its superior service is a very difficult circle to square.
They say you can never go home again, and for 21st century tech consumers who want only the best, this much is true. Progress waits for nobody and technological innovation is, in of itself, a very, very good thing.
Every town and city should have a service like Uber. The future is likely to give us unprecedented means of transportation, with driverless electric-powered vehicles available to us at any time. Incidentally, this is an area that many tech companies including Uber are furiously investing in. Alas, the days of the taxi rank are drawing in and night will fall on an entire industry.
The rebirth of an industry
The #DeleteUber campaign shows what can happen when thousands of people unite behind a common idea. But 200,000 canceled accounts is unlikely to have any sustained impact on how Uber operates. More importantly, campaigns such as this are unlikely to change how Uber is perceived as a brand by the majority of people. It is probably true to say that most people are only interested in getting from A to B, and even if they do have principles on the matter, these are likely to take a back seat (pun intended).
This is new ground. The emergence of platforms like Uber which are designed to act as a springboard for those wanting to get into the gig economy are setting a precedence of instability and fragmentation. It is entirely possible that the market forces propelling this technology are not the most suitable mechanisms for the job, and if this is the case, what could be?
If not Uber, then what?
As self-driving technology develops and smart devices become more commonplace (nearly 20% of UK adults still did not have access to a smartphone in 2016), building on the work already done by the likes of Uber will become more accessible. This opens up a number of opportunities to create new platforms which aren’t necessarily owned and operated by private firms solely for the purpose of profit.
Being outraged by Uber’s questionable business practice whilst at the same time enjoying its superior service is a very difficult circle to square.
The cooperative model, for example, may promote social responsibility often wilfully ignored by growing, profit-seeking businesses. And the increasingly popular social enterprise model may see profits funnelled back into local projects to support the communities in which they operate. There may even be scope for transport platforms to be taxpayer-funded and operated by state bodies to ensure they are available and accessible to all. Private firms may still exist to fill the gaps where funding is restrained, or to provide a more “premium” service.
We’re hurtling toward a future of accessible, interconnected, largely autonomous devices, and this hands designers and developers a unique opportunity to reshape the way organisations are structured and operate in this space. The gig economy is in its infancy, and if we want to change up “business as usual” for the better, now is most definitely the time to do so.