A moving essay on a friend’s death exposes the limits of Uber’s new empathy

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Image: AP Photo/Richard Drew
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Earlier this month, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi marked his first anniversary as head of the company. There was much to celebrate. In the past year, he has dramatically altered Uber’s public image and company culture, cleaning up the toxic mess that was the ride-sharing firm under the famously aggressive Travis Kalanick. In comparison, Khosrowshahi has been lauded as a more empathetic leader and a listener, the exact opposite of his bullying predecessor.

But the facts in an essay published yesterday (Sept. 30) in the Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper, stand in sharp contrast to the gentle, compassionate corporate image Khosorowshahi is trying to project. The moving piece was written by Eric Andrew-Gee, a young journalist on the paper’s editorial board who was also best friend to Nick Cameron, a Toronto resident and web developer who was killed in an Uber accident six months ago, at age 28.

Cameron and Andrew-Gee met in the third grade and grew up together, attending the same schools through junior high and high school in Toronto, and university in Montreal. As young adults, they both landed in Toronto. “We edited each other’s writing and confided in each other about breakups and new love,” Andrew-Gee recalls. “We helped each other move for beer and pizza, as we hopscotched between crummy apartments in our mid-20s. We cooked for each other.”

Nick was in fact “putting together an adult life” before he was killed in that Uber ride, his friend writes. That night, Cameron was on his way to the airport with his girlfriend, ready to fly to Mexico, when his driver made a fatal mistake on one of the city’s busiest highways, the Gardiner Expressway. Andrew-Gee describes the accident:

After a few minutes, the driver’s phone fell off his dashboard. He was using the phone’s GPS to navigate, so he pulled over. The shoulder at that part of the Gardiner, near Royal York Rd., is narrow – barely a car wide. People don’t pull over there unless their car has broken down.

When the driver had retrieved his phone, he merged back into traffic, apparently without checking his mirrors. A BMW smashed into them from behind. The rear left side of the Uber, where Nick was sitting, bore the brunt of the impact.

The writer believes that the city of Toronto failed his friend by not enforcing a policy change that possibly could have prevented the accident.

Rather than enforce rules that would make it necessary for ride-sharing drivers to take the same courses in safety as licensed taxi drivers—as New York, Chicago, Montreal and other cities have done—Toronto in 2016 lowered its standards for everyone. Potential Uber or Lyft drivers there are subject to background checks and must not have 10 or more demerit points on their licenses to be approved, but they do not take road tests. Nor do they need to take the 17-day safety class that was once mandatory for city cabbies.  

The Uber driver at the wheel when Cameron was killed turned out to be a 23-year-old recent transplant from Ottawa. During the ride, he had first set off in the wrong direction, driving away from the airport until Cameron and his girlfriend spoke up. Then he had suggested taking the city’s streets instead of the highway, but his passengers insisted on the faster route to their waiting plane. “A road test might have revealed that he was nervous on the city’s highways,” Andrew-Gee writes, adding, “Lessons in local geography, such as those cabbies used to receive, would have taught him where the airport was. An instructor might have hammered home the notion that pulling onto the shoulder of a highway when you lose your GPS is unwise.”

Uber argues that its rating system keeps poor or unsafe drivers off the road, but a number of recent incidents involving accusations of sexual harassment and abuse of passengers, and reckless driving, point to the system’s obvious failings.

And the problem is apparent in other markets, too. This summer, a woman in Mumbai told reporters that she was waiting for Uber to apologize for an accident that left her 44-year-old husband in a coma for months. Apparently, the driver who hit him as he crossed a street only had his license for three days.

Star ratings wouldn’t have revealed that fact. Besides, “new drivers can easily rack up decent ratings before showing their true colours in difficult moments,” Andrew-Gee writes.

He is urging Torontonians to vote in a city council that will stand up to Uber, writing that “Uber will never embrace regulation—few companies do.” Historically, Uber has agreed to subject its drivers to tighter restrictions only when a city has launched a battle.

But how can a company that’s making a big deal out of safety as its new priority, and empathy as its underlying value, not voluntarily impose better road training, knowing what can happen when an inexperienced driver, or one who is new to the city, is hustling to pick up fares?

Quartz contacted Uber for a response to the Globe and Mail essay. In an email, a company spokesperson responded: “This is a heartbreaking tragedy and we continue to extend our deepest sympathies to Nick’s family and loved ones. We’re committed to safety and working with experts to constantly improve and make our platform safer.”

Uber did introduce a few safety features to mark Khosrowshahi’s one-year anniversary. It added a 911 button to the app and introduced a sensor that will use AI to detect when a car has been parked for an inordinate amount of time, possibly because of a crash. In that case, your phone would report the problem to Uber after the fact.

But, as Wired commented, these “smart and necessary changes” are not groundbreaking: “These are the types of features one should expect of a ride-sharing company valued at $72 billion that aims to vault itself into everyone’s subconscious as the definitive app for arranging all types of future transportation.” Notably, for Cameron and his now grieving lifelong friend, these new safety products wouldn’t have saved them once they were already en route to the airport, trusting in Uber’s services.

Cameron’s friend is blaming Toronto for allowing Uber’s influence to result in lowered safety standards. But in the era of empathetic leadership and conscious capitalism, one has to wonder if Uber should share in the blame.

This story has been updated to include a statement from Uber.