Uber, that most ethical of ride-hailing companies, is in hot water once again. This time it isn’t for slashing drivers’ pay so low they can barely survive or having an institutionalised culture of sexism — I’m sure its PR department only wishes it could throw out the canned lines it has prepared for such situations. No, this time it’s thanks to CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, who chose to do his absolute best to dismiss the gravity of the execution and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, to avoid angering the Saudi government and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman — you might know him by his initials, “MbS” — who have invested billions in the company.
In an interview with Axios on HBO, Khosrowshahi called Khashoggi’s brutal, premeditated murder at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul — which the Saudi state actually tried to cover up by sending out someone of a similar build wearing his clothes — a “mistake,” akin to an Uber autonomous test vehicle running down a pedestrian. In fact, he went further, saying that “people make mistakes, it doesn’t mean that they can never be forgiven.” In other words, let’s forgive the definitely-not-a-murderous-dictator “MbS,” who’s reported to have directly ordered Khashoggi’s assassination — otherwise Uber might not keep getting the Saudi money that funds their billion-dollar losses quarter after quarter.
Unsurprisingly, pretty much everyone other than maybe a few Saudi officials were shocked at how Khosrowshahi not only made the statement, but didn’t change his tone even after the Axios journalists pushed back. You might imagine his shocked colleagues gasping off-camera as he defended murder as a “mistake” — and, sure enough, the next day a statement from Khosrowshahi appeared explaining that he “said something in the moment that I do not believe.” Sure, Dara.
But anyone who’s really paid any attention to Uber’s history shouldn’t be surprised at all. Uber’s whole business model was premised on criminality — the willful, systematic flouting of local taxi regulations, based on a wager that the company could retroactively absolve itself by getting the laws changed via big-money lobbying. With that kind of mission, it’s not surprising its executives had blood on their hands long before they started taking Saudi blood money. It comes from a mindset that pursues growth at quite literally any cost — human or financial.
The Human Cost of Uber
The last time anger at Uber’s terrible culture and business practices erupted, it was in reaction to the company’s breathtakingly cynical attempt to break a JFK airport strike waged by New York taxi drivers in protest against Trump’s Muslim ban. At that time hundreds of thousands of people deleted the app. After the recent Axios interview, #BoycottUber started trending in what will hopefully be a much-needed renewal of the previous boycott that could bring the company to its knees, but a blasé attitude toward human suffering and death is characteristic of the company.
Take the example of Elaine Herzberg, who was run down by an Uber self-driving vehicle on a test run in Tempe, Arizona. In his interview, Khosrowshahi called her death a “mistake” — a claim as misleading as calling the vehicle “self-driving.” A National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report released in November 2019 revealed that Herzberg was killed because the self-driving team only coded the system to look for pedestrians in designated crossing areas, so when the sensors picked up Herzberg, the system didn’t know what she was or how to react to her until it was too late. Fatal oversight seems a more accurate description, but, as usual, don’t expect those who programmed it to be held to account. Herzberg’s death remained just another statistic.
Her life wasn’t the only one lost to Uber’s Silicon Valley–style “move fast and break things” philosophy. In his book Super Pumped, New York Times reporter Mike Isaac describes founding CEO Travis Kalanick’s “quest for global domination” — and all the lives it destroyed in the process. In India, Uber drove down wages for drivers to such an extent that an angry mob dumped the corpse of an Uber driver on the company’s front doorstep. Another driver committed suicide because he couldn’t afford his car payments, and a number of others self-immolated. You’d think that would be enough for company leadership to reassess, but it didn’t end there.
The executives didn’t care if their aggressive, highly subsidised entrance into new markets decimated livelihoods, so when taxi drivers in Mexico who “had spent thousands of dollars on licenses, permits, training classes, and other state-mandated items” suddenly saw their rides drop off when Uber arrived, they were angry. In retaliation, Uber drivers were robbed, attacked, and sometimes even killed. The situation was similar in Brazil, where the company let drivers sign up with just an email address or phone number and accept cash payments.
Uber launched at a time when unemployment was at an all-time high and crime rates were soaring. How nobody at Uber HQ thought that would be a problem remains a mystery, but Isaac writes that “[c]ars were stolen and burned, drivers assaulted, robbed, and occasionally murdered. [. . .] At least sixteen drivers were murdered in Brazil before Kalanick’s product team improved identity verification and security in the app.”
And while those tales might make it seem that the carnage was contained to poor countries, that’s not the case. In December 2018, the New York Times reported that three taxi owners and five professional drivers had committed suicide in the past year. Douglas Schifter, who killed himself outside City Hall, explicitly blamed Uber for his decision to take his own life because it made him have to work a hundred hours a week just to survive. Unlike taxi companies, which are highly regulated and whose vehicle numbers are capped in major cities, Uber doesn’t follow the same rules, has consistently fought basic background checks and safety training, and floods cities with as many vehicles as will drive for it.
That’s only a partial account of the mayhem caused by Uber. There’s more that could be said about how Uber’s sexist workplace has affected both the women who work there and those who use its service. Isaac reports that Kalanick believed any accusation of sexual assault or harassment against a driver was a personal attack against Uber — “Uber was the real victim, he felt” — and sometimes when a case was dropped, “a round of cheers would ring out across the fifth floor of Uber HQ.” These are the people the business press once hailed as visionaries and paragons of leadership.
Uber Hasn’t Changed
Uber has a long history of ignoring or dismissing the human cost of its business. Isaac confirms the executives “had major blind spots because of their fixation on growth, and their casual application of financial incentives often enflamed existing sociocultural problems.” The company may try to claim that’s all in the past, but Khosrowshahi’s response to Axios’s questioning on Saudi Arabia and Khashoggi’s murder conclusively proves that’s bullshit.
Uber is still cutting drivers’ wages to try to reach profitability, forcing them to work longer hours to earn the same income. It’s fighting California’s new labour laws that require the company to make drivers employees, giving them the same legal rights and protections as other workers. It’s still artificially subsidizing Uber rides to make them cheaper than taxi fares, destroying the livelihoods of taxi drivers in the process. And it will take money from whoever’s offering — even a regime that openly oppresses its people, murders journalists, is causing a humanitarian crisis in Yemen, and systematically oppresses the women in its country — then downplay their abuses.
Uber has a long history of shrugging off murder; Khashoggi’s is just another body on the pile.