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Opinion & Analysis

LUESBY: Uber’s public relations nightmare rolls on

Former Uber CEO and co-founder Travis Kalanick. PHOTO | MONEY SHARMA | AFP
Former Uber CEO and co-founder Travis Kalanick. PHOTO | MONEY SHARMA | AFP 

Uber is in a lot of trouble lately. With its CEO and co-founder Travis Kalanick having now resigned, headlines are multiplying about the brand’s ‘bad boy’ culture, and drivers’ bad behaviour.

Trust is being smashed at speed, first with shareholders, and now across both passengers and drivers.

And trust matters when it comes to taxi rides. Yet a row of nasty headlines this week report an Uber driver in Los Angeles in court for kidnapping and raping a drunk passenger.

The timing could not be worse for the company.

For sure, cases like that can happen to any brand. Every employee of every corporation is as likely to behave badly as the general rate of antisocial behaviour, in truth.

Yet as the Uber miracle unravels, it seems that there really is something awry with its commitment to trust and good behaviour, brought home sharply to me this past weekend.

We’ve had many excellent experiences with Uber in Nairobi these last two years: some great drivers, many great drivers.

Not just in Nairobi either. My son’s friend left his phone in an Uber in Prague: the driver even posted it back to England, which was amazing.

But for all the best of Uber drivers, without a clear system to keep bad drivers in check, Uber has a problem, and one that is now seeing nasty, bad habits of systemic theft creeping over into the Uber world.

This weekend, with my own trust in a solid system that maps where my kids are, and is all fully transparent, my 14-year-old son took an Uber to a friend’s house - while I was off with the car picking up his elder brother from the airport.

When he came to pay, the Uber driver Nicholas said he had no change: the oldest game in the book. For how can one stay on a matatu, or get out of an Uber without paying? So there we all get trapped, handing over our money, and our price just doubled. It’s a nice play.

My son had clocked up a fare of Sh550 with Nicholas, and only had a Sh1,000 note. But he’s a problem solver. He knew he would need another Uber later, so he arranged with Nicholas to pick him back up at 5:30pm and put the Sh450 towards the next ride.

With many Uber drivers, I believe it would have worked. We were also in some false cocoon of trust thanks to all those transparent phone numbers and names, and some sense that Uber would act if a driver behaved unethically.

Or more profoundly, that no driver would follow through with theft with their number out there, and reporting so easy.

Of course, Nicholas never returned, never called, and my son ended up stranded. We sorted his problem, and then I started calling Nicholas. He was hard to get hold of, so I texted.

He responded, and eventually said he was bringing the Sh450 to our house, where he had picked up my son, or would M-Pesa it immediately. I sent the M-Pesa number. No Sh450 ever came in two days of asking him to send it.

After a day, we went to my son’s Uber app. You can report bad behaviour by a driver in the past rides section of the app, under your account.

They don’t offer an option for the ‘driver stole from me’, but there is an ‘other bad behaviour’ section, so we filled it out and submitted. Nothing happened.

More worryingly still, Nicholas doesn’t care. I guess he must know that in a company where there is little in the media these days but reports of its poor ethics, he’s safe to pick up as many riders as he wants with his ‘no change’ story, and get as much extra money as he can, even stealing it for a ride he never returns to give.

So much for Uber. Keeping bad drivers is a great way to send every consumer looking for another way.

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