In a swanky warehouse in Chelsea, New York City — soon to be overrun by models and designers in town for Fashion Week — a less fashionable crowd showcased an entirely different trend du jour: Rideshare safety.
This past Tuesday, just days after Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi marked one year in his job, the company showed off its newest suite of features in what was perhaps most appropriately compared to an Apple iPhone launch — except the product Uber was selling was security.
The portfolio of updates — including a feature called RideCheck, which uses motion-sensor data from your phone to detect if your Uber car has crashed — were geared toward ensuring both riders and drivers are safe and protected during and after rides, and will roll out over the next few months.
It was a product showcase unlike any other Uber has done. And it’s one that is not often put on by any company when it comes to something as fundamental as safety.
In place of the runways or art exhibits typically set up in the Skylight Modern, Uber set up a giant phone screen showing off its emergency alert system in one corner. In another corner, the company let reporters press a button to hear what an emergency call dispatched through Uber sounded like. Waiters serving up mini hors d’oeuvres, such as bite-sized avocado toast, walked around as people “experienced” Uber’s new safety features in much the same way a reporter might “experience” a new phone.
It’s all part of an effort to make Uber’s brand synonymous with safety, Khosrowshahi said onstage. “We want the product to be the headline,” he later told Recode. “We’re incredibly excited about the innovations that we’re bringing to the forefront as it relates to safety.”
The headline, as Khosrowshahi might have it, isn’t just that Uber is innovating on safety — but that it’s something that few of its competitors have done.
“[It’s] just unrivaled in the industry,” he continued. “You’re not going to get this in a taxi you’re not going to get this in a bus. You’re not gonna get it any of our competitors ... and ultimately I think everyone wants to be safe. It’s table stakes, and we think that the table stakes should be raised.”
When asked if by “competitors” Khosrowshahi meant Lyft, he responded, “Listen, you said it, not me.”
The company is pitching this new focus on safety as a competitive advantage. And it’s not the first time Uber has tried that. In its early days, the company referred to its service as the “safest ride on the road.” That turned out not to be entirely true and Uber was sued for false advertising, a suit which it later settled.
It’s also not the first time Khosrowshahi and his team has used the concept of safety, something he said he’s made a priority during his time at Uber, to call out competitors like Lyft. After giving in to pressure to allow alleged victims of harassment and assault to sue Uber in open court, the company announced that it was also committing to publishing a report on the sexual harassment complaints it receives on its platform and called on Lyft to do the same. Lyft eventually agreed.
Competing on safety is an increasingly common concept in the world of new transportation companies and innovations like self-driving, for instance. But it’s one that regulators have rebuked in the past. At a 2016 industry conference, then commissioner of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Mark Rosekind said automakers should focus on standardizing safety features instead of leveraging them for profit.
“In the airline industry, they do not compete on safety,” he said.
That’s not to say it’s not a real effort on Uber’s part to create and make safety features more readily available to both riders and drivers. And we’ve seen Uber’s commitment to things like the sexual harassment report pressure Lyft to do the same.
While Khosrowshahi wouldn’t disclose how much money the company is investing in safety features, he said, “Believe me, we’re putting real effort and priority behind it. I mean, I think it shows if you look at all the features that we’ve shipped in under a year.”
Those safety features include an expansion of an emergency button, in partnership with a company called Rapid SOS, which sends your location and other information directly to your local police agency. Another feature, called RideCheck, uses motion sensors and GPS in drivers’* phones to detect if your Uber car has crashed. If it senses a potential crash, the Uber app will prompt both driver and rider with a safety toolkit, including the emergency button.
Similar technology will allow the system to detect what Uber called “trip irregularities,” like a long stop in the middle of a ride, after which the company will send a notification asking both the rider and driver if they are okay.
These features do indeed provide access to a level of safety technology unforeseen in the ride-hail as well as private-car industry. But Khosrowshahi himself said ensuring the safety of users is and should continue to be seen as table stakes. It isn’t a product to sell to consumers.
These new features also raise some important questions, especially if it’s pitched as a competitive advantage.
For instance, Uber’s access to a driver’s smartphone motion sensor — which will also be used to monitor speed — and gyroscope to monitor driving could be a means through which Uber controls its drivers. At the very least, it creates an opportunity for the company to exert more control over how the independent contractors perform their job, which is only legally allowed for employees.
Khosrowshahi says Uber worked with drivers and its legal team in developing the features.
“There are some standards that we can put forward on the platform and I think that we will be relatively forceful as it relates to safety,” he continued. “That’s a very important fundamental standard, but we also want to be very conscientious of making sure that driver partners use our platform in whatever way they want to.”
As for its relationships with local law enforcement agencies, Khosrowshahi said ensuring the company was still protecting customer data and information in the face of inquiries from law enforcement while still helping in investigations was a balance. The company said it has a due process in place and requires a subpoena before it turns over any information.
“These are the judgment calls that are difficult,” Khosrowshahi said. “But we are being more open to law enforcement than we have been in the past because ultimately we think that safety is just something that every single city, every single government really believes is paramount. And we will do everything at the same time that we can to protect your personal data.”
*Correction: Uber only accesses the sensors in drivers’ phones to enable features like ride check. A previous version of this article stated Uber used the sensors in riders’ and drivers’ phones.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.