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Uber and Safety

Uber just settled one lawsuit for $28.5 million for, among other things, claiming it was “the safest ride on the road.”


A version of this essay was originally published at Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight and perspective on the tech industry.

When it comes to developing new products, I’ve always found the idea to be the easy part. It’s the execution that’s really the hard part. Execution requires implementing all of the tiny details to get everything just right. Miss one important detail and it can lead to failure.

I thought of this same issue with regard to Uber over the past several days of it being in the news. The Uber idea is brilliant, one of the best to come out of the tech industry since perhaps Facebook. The company has gotten most everything right, except one thing: Its approach to the safety of its customers. Does that make Uber vulnerable?

Now, Uber is not going to fail, but its success can seriously be affected if customers begin to worry about their safety. Even when the odds are tiny, consider how many people are afraid to fly after a serious plane crash.

Uber has gotten most everything right, except one thing: Its approach to the safety of its customers.

Had I not covered two incidents concerning Uber customers last summer for the San Diego Transcript, I might have felt differently when reading about how an Uber driver in Kalamazoo, Mich., was charged with gunning down a half-dozen people at random. I found that Uber brings some of this on itself with its own indifference and stubbornness. They are not doing everything they can to protect their customers. That was my conclusion after covering these two events and interviewing the victims.

A friend of mine, a female Silicon Valley executive, had a harrowing experience when she took an Uber on what should have been a 10-minute drive from one part of San Francisco to another. The driver took a long route onto a congested freeway, even though the driver’s GPS suggested a local route, and then went into a frenzy when she questioned him. The driver sped down the breakdown lane past stopped traffic to his left, and cut across several lanes of traffic, threatening to let her out on the freeway. She was fortunate to get out when the car stopped several blocks from her destination.

A second victim called right after this first story ran. Her Uber driver took her in the opposite direction to where she was going, and told her he was going to show her “a good time.” She only got the driver to relent when she started filming him and threatening to call the police.

In each instance, neither was able to reach Uber to report these incidents. Uber has no phone number to report problems.

The first victim was able to reach Uber only by tweeting. The company’s response was to send a link to fill out a form and a $5 refund. The second victim called the police and, when she finally was able to reach Uber, they said the driver has a known hearing problem and blamed her for misunderstanding him. She also discovered that when she tried to give the police the driver information and license number from her phone, the Uber app deletes that information once the ride begins.

In each case, the victims felt Uber showed indifference and denial.

Think about this. In each case, a life was put in danger, yet Uber did not react as any of us would if we saw a person in harm’s way. It’s lunacy that Uber does not provide a phone number to report incidents of this type. You would think the company would want to know whenever such incidents occurred.

Any company experiencing the rapid growth Uber is going through can’t possibly prevent the hiring of problem drivers. Some bad ones will get through their screening system. And proper vetting is likely one of their biggest costs, perhaps next to legal.

But even after the killings in Kalamazoo, Uber insisted that they plan no changes to their screening process, which currently requires that an applicant submits their name, birth date, social security number, vehicle registration, insurance, license and a vehicle inspection report.

Yet the company is facing lawsuits from several cities, including San Francisco, for not doing enough to screen drivers, exaggerating how safe they are and allowing convicted felons to become drivers. Uber does not do any face-to-face screening nor does it do fingerprint checking, something most law enforcement agencies recommend.

Uber just settled one lawsuit for $28.5 million for, among other things, claiming it was “the safest ride on the road.” Clearly, Uber can do more to protect its customers.

Phil Baker is a product development expert, author and journalist covering consumer technology. He has developed scores of products for companies, including Apple, Seiko, Polaroid, Barnes & Noble, Polycom, Proxima, ThinkOutside and Pono Music. Baker is the author of “From Concept to Consumer,” a former columnist for the San Diego Transcript and founder of Techsperts, Inc. Follow him at Baker on Tech, and reach him @pbaker.

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