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Uber: President Resigns, Greyball, A Major Lawsuit, Corporate Culture, And Lingering Questions

Uber logo Several executive changes are underway at Uber. The President of Uber's Ridesharing unit, Jeff Jones, resigned after only six months at the company. The Recode site posted a statement by Jones:

"Jones also confirmed the departure with a blistering assessment of the company. "It is now clear, however, that the beliefs and approach to leadership that have guided my career are inconsistent with what I saw and experienced at Uber, and I can no longer continue as president of the ride-sharing business," he said in a statement to Recode."

Prior to joining Uber, Jones had been the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) at Target stores. Travis Kalanick, the Chief Executive Officer at Uber, disclosed that he met Jones at a Ted conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

There have been more executive changes at Uber. The company announced on March 7 its search for a Chief Operating Officer (COO). It announced on March 14 the appointment of Zoubin Ghahramani as its new Chief Scientist based San Francisco. Ghahramani will lead Uber’s AI Labs, our recently created machine learning and artificial intelligence research unit and associated business strategy. Zoubin, a Professor of Information Engineering at the University of Cambridge, joined Uber when it acquired Geometric Intelligence.

In February 2017, CEO Travis Kalanick asked Amit Singhal to resign. Singhal, the company's senior vice president of engineering, had joined Uber a month after 15 years at Google. Reportedly, Singhal was let go for failing to disclose reasons for his departure from Google, including sexual harassment allegations.

Given these movements by executives, one might wonder what is happening at Uber. A brief review of the company's history found controversy accompanying its business practices. Earlier this month, an investigative report by The New York Times described a worldwide program by Uber executives to thwart code enforcement inspections by governments:

"The program, involving a tool called Greyball, uses data collected from the Uber app and other techniques to identify and circumvent officials who were trying to clamp down on the ride-hailing service. Uber used these methods to evade the authorities in cities like Boston, Paris and Las Vegas, and in countries like Australia, China and South Korea.

Greyball was part of a program called VTOS, short for “violation of terms of service,” which Uber created to root out people it thought were using or targeting its service improperly. The program, including Greyball, began as early as 2014 and remains in use, predominantly outside the United States. Greyball was approved by Uber’s legal team."

An example of how the program and Greyball work:

"Uber’s use of Greyball was recorded on video in late 2014, when Erich England, a code enforcement inspector in Portland, Ore., tried to hail an Uber car downtown in a sting operation against the company... officers like Mr. England posed as riders, opening the Uber app to hail a car and watching as miniature vehicles on the screen made their way toward the potential fares. But unknown to Mr. England and other authorities, some of the digital cars they saw in the app did not represent actual vehicles. And the Uber drivers they were able to hail also quickly canceled."

The City of Portland sued Uber in December 2014 and issued a Cease And Desist Order. Uber continued operations in the city, and a pilot program in Portland began in April, 2015. Later in 2015, the City of Portland authorized Uber''s operations. In March 2017, Oregon Live reported a pending investigation:

"An Uber spokesman said Friday that the company has not used the Greyball program in Portland since then. Portland Commissioner Dan Saltzman said Monday that the investigation will focus on whether Uber has used Greyball, or any form of it, to obstruct the city's enforcement of its regulations. The review would examine information the companies have already provided the city, and potentially seeking additional data from them... The investigation also will affect Uber's biggest competitor, Lyft, Saltzman said, though Lyft did not operate in Portland until after its business model was legalized, and there's no indication that it similarly screened regulators... Commissioner Nick Fish earlier called for a broader investigation and said the City Council should seek subpoena powers to determine the extent of Uber's "Greyball" usage..."

This raises questions about other locations Uber may have used its Greyball program. The San Francisco District Attorney's office is investigating, as are government officials in Sydney, Australia. Also this month, the Upstate Transportation Association (UTA), a trade group of taxi companies in New York State, asked government officials to investigate. The Albany Times Union reported:

"In a Tuesday letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, UTA President John Tomassi wrote accused the company of possibly having used the Greyball technology in New York to evade authorities in areas where ride-hailing is not allowed. Uber and companies like it are authorized to operate only in New York City, where they are considered black cars. But UTA’s concerns about Greyball are spurred in part by reported pick-ups in some suburban areas."

A look at Uber's operations in Chicago sheds some light on how the company operates. NBC Channel 5 reported in 2014:

"... news that President Barack Obama's former adviser and campaign strategist David Plouffe has joined the company as senior VP of policy and strategy delivers a strong message to its enemies: Uber means business. How dare you disrupt our disruption? You're going down.

Here in the Land of Lincoln, Plouffe's hiring adds another layer of awkward personal politics to the Great Uber Debate. It's an increasingly tangled web: Plouffe worked in the White House alongside Rahm Emanuel when the Chicago mayor was Chief of Staff. Emanuel, trying to strike a balance between Uber-friendly and cabbie-considerate, recently passed a bill that restricts Uber drivers from picking up passengers at O'Hare, Midway and McCormick Place... Further complicating matters, Emanuel's brother, Hollywood super-agent Ari Emanuel, has invested in Uber..."

That debate also included the Illinois Governor, as politicians try to balance the competing needs of traditional taxi companies, ride-sharing companies, and consumers. The entire situation raises questions about why there aren't Greyball investigations by more cities. Is it due to local political interference?

That isn't all. In 2014, Uber's "God View" tool raised concerns about privacy, the company's tracking of its customers, and a questionable corporate culture. At that time, an Uber executive reportedly suggested that the company hire opposition researchers to dig up dirt about its critics in the news media.

Uber's claims in January 2015 of reduced drunk-driving accidents due to its service seemed dubious after scrutiny. ProPublica explained:

"Uber reported that cities using its ridesharing service have seen a reduction in drunk driving accidents, particularly among young people. But when ProPublica data reporter Ryann Grochowski Jones took a hard look at the numbers, she found the company's claim that it had "likely prevented" 1,800 crashes over the past 2.5 years to be lacking... the first red flag was that Uber didn't include a methodology with its report. A methodology is crucial to show how the statistician did the analysis... Uber eventually sent her a copy of the methodology separately, which showed that drunk-driving accidents involving drivers under 30 dropped in California after Uber's launch. The math itself is fine, Grochowski Jones says, but Uber offers no proof that those under 30 and Uber users are actually the same population.

This seems like one of those famous moments in intro statistics courses where we talk about correlation and causality, ProPublica Editor-in-Chief Steve Engelberg says. Grochowski Jones agrees, showcasing how drowning rates are higher in the summer as are ice cream sales but clearly one doesn't cause the other."

Similar claims by Uber about the benefits of "surge pricing" seemed to wilter under scrutiny. ProPublica reported in October, 2015:

"The company has always said the higher prices actually help passengers by encouraging more drivers to get on the road. But computer scientists from Northeastern University have found that higher prices don’t necessarily result in more drivers. Researchers Le Chen, Alan Mislove and Christo Wilson created 43 new Uber accounts and virtually hailed cars over four weeks from fixed points throughout San Francisco and Manhattan. They found that many drivers actually leave surge areas in anticipation of fewer people ordering rides. "What happens during a surge is, it just kills demand," Wilson told ProPublica."

Another surge-pricing study in 2016 concluded with a positive spin:

"... that consumers can benefit from surge pricing. They find this is the case when a market isn’t fully served by traditional taxis when demand is high. In short, if you can’t find a cab on New Year’s Eve, Daniels’ research says you’re better off with surge pricing... surge pricing allows service to expand during peak demand without creating idleness for drivers during normal demand. This means that more peak demand customers get rides, albeit at a higher price. This also means that the price during normal demand settings drops, allowing more customers service at these normal demand times."

In other words, "can benefit" doesn't ensure that riders will benefit. And "allows service to expand" doesn't ensure that service will expand during peak demand periods. "Surge pricing" does ensure higher prices. A better solution might be surge payments to drivers during peak hours to expand services. Uber will still make more money with more rides during peak periods.

The surge-pricing concept is a reminder of basic economics when prices are raised by suppliers. Demand decreases. A lower price should follow, but the surge-price prevents that. As the prior study highlighted, drivers have learned from this: additional drivers don't enter the market to force down the higher surge-price.

And, there is more. In 2015, the State of California Labor Commission ruled that Uber drivers are employees and not independent contractors, as the company claimed. Concerns about safety and criminal background checks have been raised. Last year, BuzzFeed News analyzed ride data from Uber:

"... the company received five claims of rape and “fewer than” 170 claims of sexual assault directly related to an Uber ride as inbound tickets to its customer service database between December 2012 and August 2015. Uber provided these numbers as a rebuttal to screenshots obtained by BuzzFeed News. The images that were provided by a former Uber customer service representative (CSR) to BuzzFeed News, and subsequently confirmed by multiple other parties, show search queries conducted on Uber’s Zendesk customer support platform from December 2012 through August 2015... In one screenshot, a search query for “sexual assault” returns 6,160 Uber customer support tickets. A search for “rape” returns 5,827 individual tickets."

That news item is interesting since it includes several images of video screens from the company's customer support tool. Uber's response:

"The ride-hail giant repeatedly asserted that the high number of queries from the screenshots is overstated, however Uber declined BuzzFeed News’ request to grant direct access to the data, or view its data analysis procedures. When asked for any additional anonymous data on the five rape complaint tickets it claims to have received between December 2012 and August 2015, Uber declined to provide any information."

Context matters about ride safety and corporate culture. A former Uber employee shared a disturbing story with allegations of sexual harassment:

"I joined Uber as a site reliability engineer (SRE) back in November 2015, and it was a great time to join as an engineer... After the first couple of weeks of training, I chose to join the team that worked on my area of expertise, and this is where things started getting weird. On my first official day rotating on the team, my new manager sent me a string of messages over company chat. He was in an open relationship, he said, and his girlfriend was having an easy time finding new partners but he wasn't. He was trying to stay out of trouble at work, he said, but he couldn't help getting in trouble, because he was looking for women to have sex with... Uber was a pretty good-sized company at that time, and I had pretty standard expectations of how they would handle situations like this. I expected that I would report him to HR, they would handle the situation appropriately, and then life would go on - unfortunately, things played out quite a bit differently. When I reported the situation, I was told by both HR and upper management that even though this was clearly sexual harassment and he was propositioning me, it was this man's first offense, and that they wouldn't feel comfortable giving him anything other than a warning and a stern talking-to... I was then told that I had to make a choice: (i) I could either go and find another team and then never have to interact with this man again, or (ii) I could stay on the team, but I would have to understand that he would most likely give me a poor performance review when review time came around, and there was nothing they could do about that. I remarked that this didn't seem like much of a choice..."

Her story seems very credible. Based upon this and other events, some industry watchers question Uber's value should it seek more investors via an initial public offering (IPO):

"Uber has hired two outside law firms to conduct investigations related to the former employee's claims. One will investigate her claims specifically, the other is conducting a broader investigation into Uber's workplace practices...Taken together, the recent reports paint a picture of a company where sexual harassment is tolerated, laws are seen as inconveniences to be circumvented, and a showcase technology effort might be based on stolen secrets. That's all bad for obvious reasons... What will Uber's valuation look like the next time it has to raise money -- or when it attempts to go public?"

To understand the "might be based on stolen secrets" reference, the San Francisco Examiner newspaper explained on March 20:

"In the past few weeks, Uber’s touted self-driving technology has come under both legal and public scrutiny after Alphabet — Google’s parent company — sued Uber over how it obtained its technology. Alphabet alleges that the technology for Otto, a self-driving truck company acquired by Uber last year, was stolen from Alphabet’s own Waymo self-driving technology... Alphabet alleges Otto founder Anthony Levandowski downloaded proprietary data from Alphabet’s self-driving files. In December 2015, Levandowski download 14,000 design files onto a memory card reader and then wiped all the data from the laptop, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit also lays out a timeline where Levandowski and Uber were in cahoots with one another before the download operation. Alphabet alleges the two parties were in communications with each other since the summer of 2015, when Levandowski still worked for Waymo. Levandowski left Waymo in January 2016, started Otto the next month and joined Uber in August as vice president of Uber’s self-driving technology after Otto was purchased by Uber for $700 million... This may become the biggest copyright infringement case brought forth in Silicon Valley since Apple v. Microsoft in 1994, when Apple sued Microsoft over the alleged likeness in the latter’s graphic user interface."

And, just this past Saturday Uber suspended its driverless car program in Arizona after a crash. Reportedly, Uber's driverless car programs in Arizona, Pittsburgh and San Francisco are suspended pending the results of the crash investigation.

No doubt, there will be more news about the lawsuit, safety issues, sexual harassment, Greyball, and investigations by local cities. What are your opinions?

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