Dear Uber, It’s Time For a Man To Man Talk.

 
Dear Uber, 
 
I feel it’s time to have a man to man talk. Or, to put it more pedantically, a human being to voraciously ambitious young company focused on world domination on other people’s money, at the significant cost of human dignity talk. 
 
I mean, wtf people? You launched a taxi service in New Delhi, in India, a city where women till recently balked at the idea of getting onto public transport for fear of being groped or touched. Where carrying a safety pin was considered prudent in case of the need for self defence. Where most women think many times about taking any form of transport alone, after dark. A city that has witnessed horrific crimes on women in frighteningly recent memory. Into this environment, you dropped your oh-so-convenient taxi service which makes no more than mandatory background checks and takes little responsibility. Did you really think this was going to go well? 
 
I am a huge supporter of your technology. I’ve written about it here and here. I’m also a huge supporter of your service, in general. I’ve even compared it to impressionism, and that’s pretty high praise. So this is not some disgruntled rant by somebody who doesn’t get technology and wants to stand in the way of progress. Just wanted to get that out of the way before we go any further. 
 
Because the problem is obviously not limited to New Delhi or any specific place, as this terrible incident from Boston suggests. Let’s face it. If, hypothetically speaking, I had evil intentions, becoming an Uber driver may just give me the kind of opportunity my imaginary dark side craves. After all, you take no liability so you naturally are more carefree with your background checks. 
 
The irony is that technology could actually make it much safer to take a cab. To start with you might consider using blackboxes instead of consumer grade mobile devices, as these guys do. These would be much harder to turn off. Second, and even with your current set up, the moment a GPS device gets turned off for more than a minute, a red flag should go off, triggering a call to the driver and the customer. If they don’t get answered, that should be a call to the police. You should also be able to track if the car has gone significantly off the path indicated by the customer, and you’d probably be able to mark off busy and lonely spots on a map. I mean there must be a hundred other ways for smart technologists like you to make your journeys safer. 
 
I’m sure world domination is within your reach, but it seems like you are your adolescent worst enemy right now. After that ill-advised rant against a woman journalist, and that completely over the top idea to track down another journo, with carefree ignorance about privacy, you’d have thought that you would have battened down the hatches and focused very hard on doing the right thing. 
 
But apparently not. 
 
May I suggest that you seriously consider appointing a Chief Ethics Officer? I appreciate that this may cause some confusion with your existing CEO, but from where I stand, your Ethics Officer may just be the most important person in the company right now, given that he/she stands between you and implosion. I get that you’ve hired a Chief Privacy Officer, but I think that ship has sailed. I also understand that you’ve got helpful lists for customers such as this one. But isn’t that a bit like a giving out road safety instructions whilst dishing out licenses to dangerous drivers? 
 
I sincerely hope you go from strength to strength and I will likely be availing myself of your service at certain moments. There is simply no better way to get home from Heathrow at the end of a long day. Btw, the Spotify integration was cool, and fun. 
 
However, I will be advising all my women friends to stay away from Uber for a while until you’re able to demonstrate that you do really care. And there will be all those other times when I could use your service, or not. And I probably won’t. And you do realise that you can’t aim for world domination by being a last resort. 
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Adventures in Uberland

 

The Habit 

Nothing is as addictive as a service that is easy, offers instant gratification and solves an everyday problem. I just had to try it once, and I was hooked. Now, you have to realise that it’s not the same in London, where the density and availability of cabs, both private and public is very high. But out here, in New Jersey standing on the highway, and facing the prospect of great head-scratching and then significant time and effort to get practically anywhere, it’s the most obvious thing to do! And once was all it took. 

My name is Ved and I am addicted to Uber. 

Nobody walks in New Jersey. This is almost as much of a truism as “No Snakes in Ireland”. But its true. I found a Starbucks 10 mins away (on foot) from my hotel. To get to it, though, I have to walk through 3 parking lots, a driveway and a stretch of path by the road which I think has just been created for some construction work. Nobody walks in NJ and it’s not designed for walking. Nonetheless, each morning I venture my way to the Starbucks and then head out from there. 

When my coffee is three-quarters finished, book the cab on Uber. It usually takes 7-8 minutes for the car to arrive. It comes right to the Starbucks without my having to give the driver any instructions. I get a warning when the car is 2 mins away. Is it not obvious yet, why I can’t tear myself away? Of course there are moments when it falls over a little bit. But more about that later. 

What’s in It for Me? 

It’s a cashless transaction. I can track the car. You know all of this. 

But I also know the name of the driver and vice versa so I can greet him with a ‘Hello Dan’ – this is a very small thing, but I find it extremely worthwhile. It opens up the space for a conversation. 

What’s in It for Him?

So far all the Uber drivers I’ve met are men. I’m sure there are women Uber drivers as well. So forgive the generalisation. 

Uber hoovers up spare capacity and brings more granularity into the supply side. In other words, you could be an Uber driver for 2 hours a day or whatever works for you. 

I met a driver who was a tech entrepreneur, one who was also driving for a cab company and one who was a student. I learnt that Uber gives each driver a phone with the Uber app installed and everything else disabled. I learnt that thanks to the geofence implemented, if you don’t have the right license / car to drive in New York, the app shuts off as soon as you get on the bridge. 

Finding Nemo

Yesterday, I called the Uber car after my coffee but he struggled to find me. 

 

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But he did, finally. Took him 15 extra minutes. It was a Sunday and I was enjoying my coffee. I didn’t mind. 

 

Mobile Entrepreneur 

Today, my Uber driver was Rob. He told me he’d just started with Uber a month ago, when he quit his job with a software company. Why did he quit? He started his own company. What kind of software? Mobile apps. He said he drives for a couple of hours every day. We had a great discussion about the Uber app itself, the advantages and drawbacks. The geo-fencing, the battery life. 

On Friday my Uber drive was Taj and we spoke about daughters and growing up in different cultures. 

 

Uberisation

Professionally speaking, Uber could well happen to your industry. What if service providers had a platform to offer to users what you do with great investment and commitment? What AirBnB is to hotels, or Ebay is to retailers. These platforms aren’t service providers themselves, but often are really focused on marketplace efficiencies. 

Should you look for these opportunities within your own industry, before somebody else does? That might well be the right question to ask. 

Because, as I’ve already argued before, resisting technology is like resisting ageing

Resisting Technology Is Like Resisting Ageing

My wife (Karuna) and I often differing views on a number of things, as is common. And almost always, she’s right. But there are some areas where we agree to disagree. 
 
Karuna doesn’t drive a manual car. She’s very comfortable in an automatic. I love driving – either manual or automatic. Obviously, the automatic car is doing a whole lot of thinking for you. And probably doing a few things better. By matching the gear to the speed more effectively, it’s likely to be more fuel efficient especially in stop-start city driving. But like most people who drive a manual car, I hunker for the control of the stick shift and the level influence I have on the drive. It feels like I’m closer to the engine. The automatic car provides a level of abstraction and let’s anybody drive, without mastering the intricacies of gear shifts and clutch control. Somewhere in the recesses of my mind, the message keeps flashing: the automatic is all right, but a manual car is a real drive. 
 
We have the opposite stances on Digital Cameras. As somebody who has formally learnt photography and spent time in dark-rooms developing prints, she loves the control, and human input into the process. I enjoy the fact that I can get great photographs by just framing the picture. Karuna gave me tips on framing but the camera does the rest – i.e. manage exposure, focus, lighting, and even the intensity and balance of colours. Of course, all of this comes bundled with a phone. No more wandering around with an SLR camera slung around your neck. I love it. For her its anathema. 
 
The pattern here is simple, when we invest time and effort in building a skill, or a technique, we are invested in the process, not just the output. And what almost every technological advancement tends to do, is that it democratises is previously closely held skill, putting the same level of competence into the hands of amateurs and novices. For the experts this is distasteful or downright annoying, but more importantly, it’s often professionally disruptive. The former, because it devalues that expert process which we are attached to, and the latter, because it challenges their expertise and renders them less valuable. 
 
“The Knowledge” is the course that all London Black Cab drivers go through. For decades, the London Cab has been famous – one of the icons of the city. Apart from the car itself, which is custom designed and manufactured for the purpose, the drivers are famed for their familiarity with the city and routes. The Knowledge comprises some 320 routes through London, and covers 25,000 streets and 20,000 landmarks. A black cab driver is expected to know them all. Qualifying takes 2-4 years on average. During the exam, they can be given any start point and end point in those hundreds of routes and they are expected to know the most efficient way of getting from start to finish. The number of qualified drivers is controlled. Typically, it takes an investment of 30,000 to become a cab driver, in addition to the 25 hours a week time invested over 3 years.  Typically, the London Cab is twice the price or more for journeys that take 30 minutes or more, compared to the privately run ‘mini-cabs’ that also operate in an organised manner in London. 
 
Since the dawn of sat-navs any driver can find locations, routes, and optimise journeys with an investment of under a hundred pounds. Nowadays the smartphone does just as well. Today every user who gets into a taxi is more likely than not to have a device with him or her that can provide exactly the same level of knowledge about routes, directions and traffic conditions that the black cab driver has accumulated over 3 years. Short of injecting this knowledge into the brain, a la Matrix, the first time tourist in London is now as well equipped to navigate London as the black cab driver. 
 
Of course, you still need to get a taxi, and the black cabs are ubiquitous in London so you’re likely to hail one anyway. Or you would, till the arrival of the brigade of taxi apps. And the poster child of taxi applications – Uber. Now you just send up a digital flare while you’re working your way through dessert and you can be sure that by the time you’re out on the street, the taxi is likely to be there. Not a London Cab but a less expensive car with a similar assurance of safety and comfort. 
 
Not that London Cabs are luddites. The Hailo and Gettaxi  pps do exactly this for black cabs. The whole experience of calling a taxi has changed forever. You just broadcast a request and one of the many taxis which is the closest to your location responds. It’s the same for any category of cabs. Even the cab companies which take bookings do so through apps. It’s just that the price premium charged by London cabs is no longer sustainable. 
 
There are plenty of other services run by local cab companies which come with Apps. I use a company called Swift  which has a reliable app and also one of the drivers, let’s call him Bob, asks me about it whenever he picks me up. The last time around we had a discussion about some of the features that the app should add. He is very engaged with the idea of the app making this experience better. 
 
As I write this, all over the world, incumbent taxi services are warring with new services such as Uber and Lyft. Which are by the way, just marketplaces, and not car services, themselves. And clearly much of the legislation does not cover this model. So the incumbent services are lobbying the government for protection. In Germany, a cab license costs over $ 250,000. Understandably, drivers having paid that sum are not happy to see their returns diminished via competition from new and technologically enabled entrants. Many cities including Munich, Dusseldorf, Berlin and Hamburg are considering declaring Uber illegal. Their argument is primarily that as taxi services, Uber enabled cabs should pay the same license fee. 
 
In Seoul, the government’s concerns are based around the safety of the vehicles, background checks on drivers, and the impact on the local taxi trade. The last may be the most honest reason, in most parts of the world. Even though in Seoul, Uber is more expensive than the regular taxis. 
 
Even at home, in the US, Uber has faced the law – in Virginia for example, where Uber has been asked to ‘cease and desist’ by the government, till it obtains the ‘proper authority’. 
 
Brussels has already banned Uber. Barcelona, Paris and other major European cities have discussed banning it. There have been strikes in London and Milan. All of these are typically examples of old markets and legislation trying to keep up with new business models. Even Neely Kroes has criticised the bans.
 
The pattern that repeats itself is that markets switch quickly, but legislation takes time. Most taxi apps now allow sharing, payments, and a host of other features which significantly improve the experience for the user. 
 
Defending the old model even in the face of new technology creates a precipice from which the fall can be sudden and dramatic – witness the music industry, which reaped the benefits of digital technology for many years but failed to adapt to the internet’s new models. People find ingenious methods for using the new technology to the benefit of suppliers and customers, even as regulators and enforcers fume. 
 
So where does that leave the Black Cab driver who has just spent years mastering “The Knowledge” to qualify to drive a black cab in London? Is this the end of the road for him? Is this one more example of technology rendering a valuable skill useless? 
 
Your guess is as good as mine, but for a glimpse of what could happen, let me take you back a hundred and fifty years or so. It was the time of the invention and spread of photography. I’ve written about this in more detail here but the short version is this: photography democratised portraiture. And rendered hundreds of artists jobless. Any amateur armed with a camera could take a photo more accurate and lifelike than the best of painters. So what did these artists do? Many presumably changed professions, some undoubtedly fell on hard times. But out of this some decided that their role was not to represent reality but to interpret it. It is no surprise therefore that the birth of impressionism coincided with the spread of photography. 
 
So when democratisation hits your area of expertise, as it will, sooner or later, will you find yourself with a choice of extinction or adaptation. Will you be like the impressionists and evolve? Or will you fall on your sword (or paintbrush)? Will you look for help to regulators? Or will you create new markets? After all, even decision making and ‘management’ expertise, is being democratised through analytics and knowledge systems. 
 
Either way, the challenge for regulators as always, is to move at the pace of technology and markets. The challenge for you is to evolve to find or create a market as technology democratises your specialist skill. Resisting the change, though, is not really an option. You might as well try to resist ageing.