Uber’s fortunes continue to rise despite insistent drum roll of disturbing news
by Mike Beggs
With its groundbreaking virtual dispatching technology, oft-discounted rates, deep pockets, and ultra-aggressive lobbying, Uber has quickly grown into one of the world’s largest, most valuable transportation companies.
Poised to go public in 2019, its’ valuation could come in at $120 billion, according to the Wall Street Journal -- making this Silicon Valley firm worth more than Honda ($49.3 billion), Tesla ($46.9 billion),General Motors ($45.3 billion), Ford ($34.4 billion) and Fiat/Chrysler ($25.1 billion).
In just seven years, the Uber Empire has expanded to some 300 cities around the world.
But despite the strident efforts of CEO Dara Khosrowshahi to cast a gentler image to the Uber name, the company can’t seem to avoid continuing bad press – given a business model which was designed to disrupt traditional taxi bylaws, and cuts corners on driver training, background checks, and safety measures like in-car cameras (mandatory in taxis, in many cities).
The spotlight was thrown on the issue of passenger safety again in mid-October, when Toronto Uber driver Abdihared Bishar Mussa, 26, filed a guilty plea to the reduced charge of Careless Driving under the Highway Traffic Act, in the March 21 death of 28-year-old Nicholas Cameron.
Cameron was killed in the back of an Uber en route to Pearson International Airport. Police say the driver – in only his second day on the road for Uber -- had pulled his Hyundai Sonata over on the Gardiner Expressway to pick up a fallen cellphone, and merged back into traffic when struck by a car from behind.
According to the Toronto Star, the driver was facing four Criminal Code charges (including Dangerous Driving causing death). But in explaining why the prosecution had accepted his guilty plea, Crown Attorney Michael Coristine told the Court, Mussa had used, “poor judgement with extremely tragic, unimaginable consequences, but he did no set out to injure anyone that night.”
The victim’s distraught family repeated its call for the City of Toronto to tighten up driver and vehicle safety standards, lowered with the 2016 passing of the Vehicle-For-Hire Bylaw, licensing Uber and other Private Transportation Companies (PTC’s). Cameron’s mother Cheryl Hawkes attended all nine of the recent public consultation meetings during the VHF Bylaw Review to draw attention to this issue.
“In the end, responsibility for Nick’s death has been left on the side of the road, and no one wants to touch it,” she told The Star, after the Mussa plea.
“My son was almost like a textbook case of everything that is wrong with ridesharing in our city.”
Veteran TTL driver Murtuza (“Latif”) Gowher suggests the City has rolled the dice on safety, to accommodate PTC’s, and that taxis and PTC’s should be held to the same standards. He says -- while drivers still have to learn on the job-- the 17-day training course laid “a good foundation”, teaching defensive driving, sensitivity, city geography, and emergency procedures.
“The guy’s phone fell off (its’ holder). You don’t have to immediately pick it up. The way he handled himself on the highway was very unsafe, and reckless,” he alleges.
Meanwhile, on October 7 in Los Angeles, a 37-year-old Lyft driver was arrested for the alleged kidnapping and rape of a female passenger he picked up outside a bar at closing.
According to the L.A. Police Department, the driver is charged with rape, felony sexual battery, sexual penetration with a foreign object, as well as kidnapping with the intent to commit a sexual assault.
Lyft issued a statement to ABC reading, “The allegations described are truly horrific, and we have reached out to the passenger to extend our full support.”
On October 16, the New York Times reported that a 24-year-old Uber driver is charged with kidnapping and groping a woman, and billing her $1,047 for what was supposed to have been a short ride home.
Prosecutors say, the woman fell asleep in the back of her Uber from Manhattan, and woke to find the car stopped and the driver in the back seat with one hand under her skirt, and the other touching her breast. He eventually left her on the side of Interstate 95 near New Haven, her credit card charged $1,047 for a trip to Massachusetts.
“No one – man or woman – should fear such an attack when they simply hire a car service,” stated Geoffrey S. Berman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, “This individual’s behavior goes far beyond ridesharing companies’ efforts to revise their ethics codes and put stronger emphasis on background checks for their drivers.”
Meanwhile, in San Francisco, a 39-year-old father of two suffered a traumatic brain injury after a rideshare incident on September 8.
In a video released by police, a white four-door sedan pulled up, and when the man leaned in to ask if this was his Lyft ride, the passenger door swung open, hit him and knocked him to the pavement. The driver also punched victim.
His wife told NBC, “There was a lot of blood coming out of the back of his head, and the side of his ears and nose.”
It was three weeks later that the victim started remembering details of his life.
Dismayed by the prevalence of such PTC driver-related crimes, Mississauga plate owner Peter Pellier wonders, “How can regulators sleep at night when they have egregiously compromised consumer health, safety, and protection by allowing PTC’s to operate at will?”
In mid-October CBC-TV’s The Fifth Estate aired an in-depth segment entitled, “The Trouble With Uber”, examining how this ridesharing giant has, “compromised road safety”, asking, “who is behind the wheel when you get in an Uber?”, and observing that, “millions of people around the world jump into an Uber every day without thinking twice.”
They noted that driver training for Uber consists of a 15-minute online tutorial on the technology, and how to keep passengers safe. (The company HAS introduced several new safety features to its app over the past year, but fights to prevent having security cameras mandated in its cars).
Hawkes told The Fifth Estate reporter, “It’s madness to ask ordinary people to jump in their cars and act like taxi drivers.”
The report observed that while Uber has not disclosed how many complaints of sexual assaults it has received, an in-depth investigation by CNN discovered that at least 103 of its drivers have been accused of sexually abusing or assaulting their passengers over the past four years.
Los Angeles lawyer Lisa Bloom, a celebrity attorney for high-profile sexual assault cases, told The Fifth Estate, “I think the number is more likely in the thousands.”
In London, England, the disturbing number of alleged sexual assaults against women – and the company’s alleged failure to pass these complaints on to the authorities -- prompted Transport for London to (temporarily) deny the renewal of Uber’s operating license in September of 2017. The company subsequently took several measures to cooperate.
While passing through Toronto recently on other Uber business, Khosrowshahi was said to be “unavailable” to speak with The Fifth Estate reporters (although he did meet privately with Hawke to hear her concerns). Uber Canada has been denying The Fifth Estate interview requests for months.
Similarly, in September, The Globe And Mail ran an in-depth story asking, “Do Canada’s taxi drivers have a place in transportation’s changing future?”
In the article, Khosrowshahi argued that, “Uber is a service that has made cities a better place.” (Recent studies have found that Uber and Lyft have actually been adding significantly to gridlock and pollution in several major cities, including Toronto).
“Sometimes the birth of new service does hurt people, does hurt individuals (namely cab operators), but it doesn’t mean that it’s not moving society forward,” he stated.
When asked if he ascertains any significant backlash against PTC’s, in light of such high-profile negative media coverage, Mississauga taxi industry veteran Mark Sexsmith responds, “No. The news cycle only gets excited when something happens.
“And all these governments are basically interested in is accommodation (of PTC’s). All the voters want is cheaper rides, and they’re not concerned about safety,” he alleges. “It has just become a political equation, at the end of the day.”