Legislation & Lobbying, Social

The dark context to Uber’s Arizona crash, and a look over the company’s history

This morning, The Guardian, broke a story which revealed some much deeper, more dangerous implications surrounding Arizona’s use of self-driving Ubers. The original story was linked to last week’s incident which saw a pedestrian killed by an autonomous car, which since unravelled into the vehicles being banned outright throughout the state. It has now been discovered, through emails with Republican Governor Doug Ducey, that the cars had in fact been secretly in use within the state since 2016 with little support from experts. The relationship was benefiting both parties, as Ducey’s staff was offered new office space from Uber and the Governor tweeted adverts for the company, as well as fervently welcoming the self-driving cars to the state – despite California’s banning the same year.

Though these back-door discussions are leagues apart from the 49 year old pedestrian, captured on camera moments before being struck by the Uber, the reality is it was the result of such original security issues that might have been overlooked by parties involved. It was, no doubt, an accident that could and should have been prevented.

Governor Ducey’s office responded to TechinDC saying, “From the beginning, Arizona has been very public about the testing and operation of self-driving cars — it has been anything but a secret.”

Though certainly not the only technology company under fire at the moment, when you actually take a look back at Uber’s history and in particular its dealings with authorities, we are actually presented with a company that isn’t really as straightforward and easy as its own technology.

Launched in March 2009, the story began with Travis Kalanick establishing an application called UberCab in San Francisco. By December 2011, known now as Uber, the company began to expand from its home turf and look abroad to France before further European countries. It was in 2014 that Uber was valued at over $3.76 billion as it launched UberRush, UberPool and UberCargo and eventually UberEats. Then came the lawsuits, the competitive apps and countries imposing legislation which mean the platform could no longer operate.

It was back in May 2015 that Uber’s Montreal offices were raided by police officials who suspected the company of violating tax laws. According to a report from Bloomberg, the officials left empty handed as, somehow, all of the computers within the office were logged out remotely. It has since been exclaimed that the method, known as Ripley, ‘after Sigourney Weaver’s flamethrower-wielding hero in the Alien movies,’ is a protocol designed across a number of Uber offices, where trained employees page a number in the San Francisco Head Office from which the team can control all devices remotely, delete data and lock systems. The question as to why a transport logistics company would have such a device, and have reportedly used it over a dozen times illustrates the company’s institutional approach to law enforcement. These stories, based on claims from employees, aided the obstruction of justice in a number of legal cases against the company, yet it doesn’t stop here.

A year later the company made headlines again for its relationship with company Ergo, a business associated with former CIA agents. The story reveals how Uber had reached out to the former intelligence employees in an attempt to find some dirt on a lawyer named Andrew Schmidt that was suing them for breaking antitrust laws. What followed was some suspicious phone calls and a list of emails between Uber and Ergo which implicate a relationship between the two of secrecy and snooping amidst Uber’s challenges. At the time, the Business Insider story lists that Uber was in the process of litigating over 70 other lawsuits.

In 2017 the company was taken over by Dara Khosrowshahi, however, this unravelled but more previous stories of bribery, theft and questions surrounding pricing and was set to face a series of investigations by U.S officials. All of this was happening whilst the general public around the world appeared to an extent benefit from safer, efficient travel options with the app, at just a fraction of the cost of normal taxis.  

However this was set to change quite rapidly too. Hungary, Taiwan, Denmark and Austin (Texas) were just some of the places to ban Uber from functioning within their jurisdiction. Their reasons vary, from legislation requiring taxi meters to fingerprint identification (neither of which Uber requires from its drivers), but the fate of the app remains undeterred in most restricted countries as a result of popular demand. London’s announcement to ban the app was met with a vast challenge from users and drivers who claimed 40,000 ‘jobs’ would be lost as a result. The thought of having to flag down a real taxi and pay with real cash apparently seemed all but otherworldly for some Londoners. However, the announcement also chimed with reports that Uber has in fact covered up a hack of 57 million users by paying off the hackers behind it, exposing yet further questionable dealings in the woodworks. 

For Uber – who tried to use a rape victim’s medical records to cast doubt on an Indian Uber trial – the inner workings of this company are beginning to be all too much. The company has a long history of avoiding rules and skirting around regulations which doesn’t seem to be letting up.

Uber is no longer the only contender in the car-share market and with so many breaking stories one might wonder if the window in the market for a similar more rule-abiding company is growing wider by the day. The same day that Uber’s most recent revelations face the media microscope, Google announced backing for another company that focusses on driverless cars

Update

Article was updated on Wednesday 28th March to include a response from Governor Ducey’s office. In addition, a previous version of this article implied that Governor Ducey’s office had accepted the offer of office space. This has now been corrected. 

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