Monthly Archives: August 2015

Time to eat humble pie – sorry Anil Dash and thanks

Damn! It was too good to be true. Here in Britain we boast that only we get irony. So when an American technologist writes a piece on improving Uber who’d have thought it was written with exquisite irony? Plainly not me when it came to Anil Dash’s post – Uber for Uber.

Having looked more closely and after taking a deeper sniff test clearly Anil was tweaking Uber’s tail to make the case that a real innovation in mobility would be to make public transport actually work for people. The Nswer cannot be to flood the streets with tens of thousands new private hire licensees to work for below minimum wage like we are seeing right now in London.

Technology can help us to invent a better future but it requires political leaders with vision and bravery to guide the realisation of the promise. Dash’s  lesson on this  apply here too in London with TfL failing to make a straightforward decision about the future of Uber within the private hire and the larger London public transportation ecosystem. No, the Mayor has kicked that to the legal long grass and providence.

Of course we Uber drivers know only too well that we are competing against public transport pulling people off the tube and busses. How can we win when we compete at that level? It’s a race to the bottom that is bad for private hire, bad for taxis, bad for customers and ultimately bad for the future of public mass transport in London.

The jokes write themselvs alright but this time the joke is on me. Apologies to Anil and well done on a provocative piece. It made me think and then think again.

Anil Dash invents the bus

Anil Dash has a big voice on all things new media and technology; a futurist, if you like. But having worked in tech for quite a few years myself I can attest that the hype cycle is alive and well. This is never more than when technologists such as Dash start predicting the future but instead end up reinventing the past.

In a piece for the Medium, Uber for Uber, Dash has 10 suggestions for making Uber ‘even better’. I’ll paraphrase here but do go and read the post here. The comments in parentheses are mine.

  1. Switch to electric. (yep)
  2. Extend access beyond phones to payment cards. (Oyster cards anyone?)
  3. Set up ride sharing stations for efficient pooling & predictability of where to get a ride. (sounds awfully like a bus stop, no?)
  4. Link cars together for greater capacity with one driver or perhaps driverless. This would be especially efficient if the driver followed a predefined route to increase predictability. (ermmm could this be like a public bus route?)
  5. Radically reduce cost – with higher ride capacity and fewer drivers and without the inconvenience of tipping you can get a ride into town for the price of a cup of coffee. (yes, I would expect the bus to cost less than driving into town in a single car by myself. The price of a cup of coffee seems right. No I don’t want to tip the public bus driver but yes I should tip my Uber driver for offering a personalized service when merited) 
  6. Reduce costs further by allowing advertising on the ‘cars’ and in the ‘rideshare stations’. (advertising on buses and in bus stations – well I never)
  7. Build a smart apps platform – once you’ve got scale of ridership you can offer information services to better integrate the transportation experience. (yes I agree and the more mass the transport mode, the bigger the opportunity)
  8. Increase car capacity. And Anil says this idea is especially radical. If the queues at the ride share station (aka bus stop) build up then you might want to sit in a super car with all your friends, one big enough with ‘capacity even more than a bus carries’. But the non stop predictions don’t stop here. Anil also imagines a series of the cars moving along guided tracks through the city. There’s even some research already carried out on this apparently. (the modern locomotive was patented by James Watt in 1784 and the first full scale railway went into operation in 1804)
  9. Ensure equal access. Anil thoughtfully considers that a mass transit system such as the one he imagines would need careful policy mandates to cover concerns such as location of ride sharing stations and integration into urban development planning. He even imagines that such transport systems might be ‘run in conjunction with municipal authorities’. (Fancy that! The jokes write themselves folks.)
  10. Now this suggestion is Anil’s self described ‘moonshot’: Imagine if we took this newly invented transport system and put it underground to free up surface space. (Damn, if only Cross Rail or London Underground had thought of this. They might even have gone electric – see #1 above.)
  11. err —- that’s it.

Joking aside for a minute, we can see how easy it is for technologists to reinvent the past and sell us old wine in new bottles labeled as technological innovation. Policy makers are seduced or even forced into adopting these ideas however hair brained lest they be seen as luddites and not progressive. Policy makers can so easily get stuck on the ‘peak of inflated expectations’ phase of the hype cycle and do enormous damage to the public good as a result.

In the case of Uber, the company likes to present itself as a technology company disrupting and reinventing the taxi and mini cab business model. In reality the service remains the same in the non virtual, real world. That is to say a driver and car shows up to chauffeur you from A to B in the real rather than virtual world. Disruption comes from Uber entering a market with a very poor service ethos and providing a clean car and a service oriented driver. That is the good part. What is less good is the regressive part. Like Anil’s leap into the past to find the future, Uber have been mining the 19th century to reinvent long gone, unjust labour practices and sell them as the future to our policy makers.

This is why the GMB has taken a case forward to Employment Tribunal in the UK to ensure that in the brave new future, whether its old wine or new, drivers will always get a fair deal.

Uber drivers need no instruction on innovation from Mark McGann

mark mcgann

Late last year Uber announced it was beefing up its PR and lobbying efforts by hiring former Obama election campaign manager David Plouffe in the United States and former Weber Shandwick and NYSE Euronext PR maven Mark Mc Gann in Europe. Presumably this duo will labour in the trenches forwarding Travis Kalanick’s notion of ‘principled confrontation‘ or corporate disobedience in plainer terms.

After the announcement of GMB’s intent to fight for UK Uber driver’s worker rights the company lost no time in wheeling out McGann in front of the TV cameras. The counterpoint was elegant in its one-two punch. First the spreading of FUD threatening that asserting rights would deprive drivers of what they love most about Uber – the flexibility. Not so.

Next McGann sought to go over the heads of drivers to appeal straight to the establishment with this statement on BBC TV News.

You have to help people with the change technology brings to the modern to economy, to how people work, to how people are employed. We are engaging with government and parties here in the United Kingdom to contribute to that debate.

But not with their own drivers apparently. Well no matter because drivers need no help from McGann on adjusting to the modern economy. They have already embraced working the app and love the flexibility working for Uber allows. Indeed, many of us have a much longer and deeper experience in technology than McGann.

However, Uber cannot hide behind a software app to justify exploitative levels of remuneration, the wholesale transfer of all operating risk while at the same time controlling prices and commissions and reserving the right to dismiss drivers from the platform at will.

There is nothing inevitable about the flexibility new technology affords necessitating a return to 19th century working rights with below minimal wage and zero security of hours or tenure.

While drivers are moving forward to embrace the best technology has to offer it is Uber that is looking longingly to a long gone past where the gang master set the lowest possible wages and ruled over workers who feared losing their job on a whim. While McGann seduces Whitehall and Brussels with tales of transforming innovation, drivers need to get the truth of matter into the public policy domain. Software innovation should serve the economy and most definitely not vice versa

GMB is fighting for a more progressive future than this for all of us.

Heroine Lady Nadia Essex is Uber London’s safety hitch

Lady Nadia Pic

Meet Lady Nadia Essex. She describes herself as a ‘hitch….., your ultimate wing woman……, the millionaire miracle woman….., the UK version of the millionaire match maker…..’. She provides a very special service for the more forlorn single ladies of London:

I am the real life ‘Hitch’. My job is to coach women on how to meet, marry, and keep their very own Prince Charming. I help women to fall in love and I am on the ultimate mission to bring back romance!

An unlikely person you might think then to step in and manage a critical a safety incident on Uber’s behalf today but that is exactly what she did when a rider reported to Uber that his driver was driving drunk. The good Lady wasted no time in offering practical assistance in real time on twitter to a distressed passenger.

She urged the passenger to get out of the car, terminate the journey, record the license plate and report the driver to the police because it’s #safetyfirst. Exactly right. I have zero sympathy for any private hire driver working under the influence. It brings the industry down and is a betrayal of public trust.

Safety is a hot issue for me and I have raised concerns at the highest level of Uber in the UK. I only wish I could tell you I was reassured that action would be taken to improve things.

Lady Nadia tweet 2

Craig Uber tweet

Craig Uber tweet 2

But the curious part of today’s incident was Uber’s response. Uber don’t have a customer service telephone number which forces riders onto social media channels to look for help. When today’s distressed rider, Craig Johnson-Pass reported on twitter:

My @Uber driver is drunk OH GOD

To this @UberUKsupport replied:

This is absolutely not cool – please email supportuk@uber.com as soon as you can with details.

Craig promptly did this but an hour later complained on twitter that he had not had a reply to which Uber UK replied:

Many thanks for your patience  Craig. Please allow up to 24 hours for our support team to respond.

24 hours? At this point there was an outpouring of incredulity on twitter. So this driver could remain on the streets of London carrying the public while paralytic on the busiest day of the week for the trade. Craig replied:

@UberUKsupport lol lets hope he doesn’t kill someone in the meantime.

Indeed.

Just last month Uber signed a partnership in the US with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) to encourage those who have a had a drink or three to park the car and hail an Uber. This from Colleen Sheehey-Church, MADD President:

We are proud to work with Uber on this important awareness campaign to highlight the dangers of drunk driving and to remind individuals nationwide to always designate a non-drinking driver. Thank you to the Uber driver-partners who are ensuring that riders have access to a reliable ride and for helping keep our streets safe this Fourth of July weekend.

It’s a good plan and generates incremental revenue for Uber but what if the driver is more drunk than the paying passenger taking all the precautions?

And yet Uber did promise in March that there was now 24 hour cover to manage serious safety risks and incidents.  This from Phil Cardenas, Uber Global Head of Safety:

To quickly respond to safety incidents, we have created Incident Response Teams that are on call worldwide on a 24/7 basis. These are specially trained groups that investigate and respond to serious safety concerns that may occur. The teams are distributed in regions around the globe and are there for those critical moments when a rapid resolution is needed.

Well it’s time to step aside Phil. Arise Lady Nadia Essex because Uber London riders and drivers need you.