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Is an Uber Ride Any Better Than a Gypsy Cab?

This is a bad thing.
March 18, 2013, 7:15pm

A bad thing happened in Washington, DC, last December. (Actually, a few bad things happened in DC, but bear with me.) A 20-year-old woman went out on U Street — a popular destination for hip young things these days — had a few drinks, smoked a little weed and then, like plugged-in millennials do, got out her smartphone to hail a cab with Uber. A driver named Anouar Habib Trabelsi picked her up, drove her home and allegedly raped her in the driveway. On Friday, news emerged that District prosecutors would not be pressing charges against the driver. It's unclear why.

While the details of the DC incident remain muddled, the allegation itself is enough to worry your average Uber customer. After all, this is a premium service that talks up how it vets its drivers, but as some Uber drivers protest their treatment by the company, they say that Uber is opening up its ranks to unlicensed drivers. If Uber allegedly employs rapists and recruits unlicensed drivers, does that make the chauffer service any different than the gypsy cabs your mom always told you not to take?

It's complicated. Uber has faced nothing but resistance from local governments and taxi companies (especially in DC) since it launched in 2011, but it's contested those challenges by demonstrating a demand for a smartphone-powered private car service, or, as it calls itself, "Everyone's Private Driver." The young startup, which charges a high premium for rides, brags about how it selects and vets its drivers. Its website says that Uber is "careful to maintain a standard of only doing business with quality, licensed drivers." There's not really any mention of safety or security, but certainly one doesn't pay a premium for a private limousine so she can get raped by the driver when she gets home.

If anything, the added scrutiny reveals how Uber's careful vetting process isn't really that careful. The New Yorker's Matt Buchanan spoke to a few Uber drivers about their signing contracts with Uber and going through the training program during a promotion in Austin for SXSW. One said it takes "like five minutes," while another said it was "just filling out forms."

And based on Uber's description, the background checks mostly involve reviewing out driving records and insurance policies. Uber stood by its process after the DC rape incident. "Uber also interviews and screens all drivers that come onto our technology platform," said the company in a statement. "Unlike a taxi that you hail on the street, when you use Uber to get a ride, you know who the driver is, their phone number, and license plate number, and you have the ability to offer instant feedback to us if there is a problem." That knowledge does not necessarily keep you from getting raped, but the accountability issue might make the driver think twice.

Uber is no stranger to criminal allegations related to safety and competition. Local taxi and livery commissions have been very outspoken about how Uber does and doesn't comply with local laws. It's a classic case of innovation growing pains, Uber's fans point out, arguing that the the laws predate Uber's disruptive model. Uber offers a more convenient way to get a ride — a few taps on the old iPhone and a car appears like magic. It's expensive magic, but it's popular enough to worry the regular taxi-driving types. It's also enough to give customers the sense that they're venturing into a privileged environment when they book a ride through Uber.

But a slick app, Yelp-like points for drivers, and luxury cars do not alone make a safe and futuristic ride. Even its employees have joined the chorus of critics. “They’re running a sweatshop with an app," said Raj Alazzeh, a driver with a local livery company who also works for Uber, and who organized a protest outside its San Francisco office last week. He claims the company offers no benefits, recently lowered pay by 10 percent, has gone on rampant firing sprees (he claimed that 500 drivers were cut off last month), and has begun hiring nonprofessional drivers without commercial liability insurance, including “soccer moms and kids out of college.”

Uber's response to its drivers (and to public concerns about its drivers) indicates an approach that, to be sure, is more Silicon Valley than Washington. “Uber is 100 percent committed to working with only the highest-quality transportation providers, thousands of whom are using Uber to grow their businesses and provide quick and reliable service to San Franciscans," Ilya Abyzov, general manager for Uber San Francisco, told AllThingsD. "Drivers who don’t know the city well or who are unsafe or unprofessional ultimately receive consistently negative feedback from riders that we cannot ignore.”

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick. Photo: Kmeron via photopin cc

Uber is not being charged with any wrongdoing in the rape case. It's unclear why, and again, it's unclear if the driver will even be charged. The company did say in a statement that it severed its contract with the driver immediately, though it declined to comment further. As The Washington Post reports, "The connection to the popular Uber service put the alleged attack in the spotlight…" But it's not like anybody's blaming Uber for letting this happen. If anything, folks are simply stunned that an expensive, high-tech luxury car service could expose riders to rapists.

At the end of the day, there is no foolproof way to prevent unsavory types from driving taxis, be they gypsy cabs or Uber limos. In fact, taxi rape happens with frightening frequency. One study in London showed that one woman was being raped in a taxi every week. Uber does provide a thin layer of security, but we know now that it is not immune to the kinds of crimes we've seen happen in yellow cabs for years.

Without taxi licenses and with a murky vetting process, these apps could be transforming transportation in ways that aren't always positive.

So if Uber can't stop crime, it's probably safe to say that other new "collaborative consumption" apps will face similar challenges. Consider car-pooling services like SideCar and Lyft, which turn any driver into a cabbie. These sound good in theory, and, in many cities, a welcome form of competition to licensed taxis. Like Uber, these apps represent what Om Malik calls "digital Darwinism," a technological survival-of-the-fittest in an era when work and business are being disrupted on all sides by big data and high-tech solutionism.

But without taxi licenses and with a murky vetting process, these apps could be transforming transportation in ways that aren't always positive. Just think about the first time you went to the big city or a foreign country, and the guide book warned you about unmarked taxis or hitchhiking. Sure, it's essential in a lot of places, but it's also a great way to get kidnapped, robbed and/or raped, said the book. In the new world of SideCar and Uber, where legitimacy isn't exactly black or white and is conferred by a regime of ambiguous stars or badges, it can be harder to know whom to trust.

The next move is Uber's. The world now knows that using Uber is no less dangerous than taking a regular taxi cab. As it's fought for survival in cities like Las Vegas, Washington, Chicago and Cambridge, Mass. — all cities that have tried to ban it on regulatory grounds — Uber's rested on its reliability and promise: to upgrade the experience of ordering a taxi. It's a process in dire need of an upgrade. But as with other innovations in old fashioned sectors (think of Airbnb, or other "sharing economy" services), one rape is enough of a reminder that innovation doesn't come easy.

The travails of Zuckerberg and his ilk offer a good recent history lesson. The success of Uber, like any new technology, will hinge upon how it manages to navigate governmental and industry bureacracies that want to police it into line. But it will also depend increasingly upon the trust of its demanding users, and how well it manages to police itself too.

Photo: Flickr/ ekonon