Controversial taxi app Uber is making its mark in Brisbane, but can you trust it?

Uber is a Google-backed mobile app that connects passengers with drivers of vehicles for hire. As well as taxi and black limousine services, the company’s most contentious offering is UberX, which allows non-taxi drivers to offer cut-price fares. (UberX drivers must be licensed, aged at least 24, and own a vehicle manufactured after 2005 that has at least four doors. They must have comprehensive insurance and no criminal record.)

Uber sees itself as a tech company, not a taxi service, and its drivers as third parties, not employees. Based in San Francisco, Uber was founded by wunderkind tech entrepreneurs Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp in 2009. Once a scrappy start-up, it now operates in 34 different countries, and is reportedly valued at $18 billion.

“Well, it’s either the smartest thing in the world or it’s going to crash and burn,” says Yellow Cabs managing director Neill Ford, “and I believe it’s going to crash and burn. There’s no substance to it. To be successful, you have to bring something to the table.

“Uber basically go around the world with their app, but they’ve got no skin in the game. In other words, they’ve got no drivers, they’ve got no licenses, they’ve got no legislation. What they tend to try to do is, they’ll maybe go and interview some of my drivers, and coerce them to sign up with them, so that when you press the button on the Uber app, a Yellow Cab will come along to an address. It won’t be an authorised Yellow Cab; Uber will have separately signed up the driver, and they’ll take 20 per cent of whatever he charges the customer.

“The problem that you get with that is that there is no back-up. There is no security. If you leave your phone in the car, or something happens in the car and you want to report it to someone, it’s not an authorised [Yellow Cabs] op, so therefore there’s no record of it in our computer… now, not only do Uber try to coerce Yellow Cab drivers, but when they’re reasonably unsuccessful, it’s not beyond them to go to a pizza delivery lady and offer her the same deal, on the basis that if she gets fined for breaking the law, they’ll pay the fine.”

The Queensland government issued a cease-and-desist notice to Uber in May, insisting the company meet existing taxi service laws. “The department is working with Uber to outline what safety regulations it needs to meet in order to operate in Queensland,” said Transport Minister Scott Emerson, “including driver authorisation, which includes detailed criminal history checks, vehicle standards and taxi licences.”

Before consulting with Emerson’s office, Premier Campbell Newman had initially indicated he wouldn’t regulate Uber — “we are a deregulation-minded government,” he told ABC radio, “we don’t believe in more red tape and regulation unless it’s absolutely necessary” — but admitted he had reservations about the app.

“I do have some concerns over the whole thing,” he said. “I’ve got daughters, 19 and 21 — I would prefer them catching a cab because I know about all the safeguards, cameras, trained drivers, GPS locations of cabs real-time. Yes, [Uber] has safeguards in there as well, but I’d prefer to use a ridgy didge cab.”

So what are Uber’s safeguards? “Every ride-sharing partner must meet our rigorous safety standards, including driver history checks, criminal background checks, requisite insurance and vehicle inspections,” Uber Brisbane manager Mike Abbott has said. “Uber’s technology also includes a feedback system which adds a layer of accountability, requiring drivers and passengers to rate each other after every trip.”

Those safeguards aren’t enough for Taxi Council Queensland CEO Benjamin Walsh: “Companies that do not meet regulatory requirements jeapardise the industry’s reputation, put lives at risk and hurt small business people who have invested heavily in meeting the regulations.”

They weren’t enough for the Victorian government, either, which is cracking down on the app. Representatives of Victoria’s Taxi Services Commission have been using the app to book rides, identify drivers and issue $1700 fines. Uber has guaranteed drivers it will pay the fines, and has avoided answering direct questions about them.

“Simon: story on the fines is about to break in Vic,” read a leaked email from Uber Sydney general manager David Rohrsheim to his Melbourne counterpart, Simon Rossi. “I’d recommend not answering the question and instead issuing a pro Uber pro choice pro city pro innovation message.”

Rossi then gave a statement very much along those lines to Fairfax. “We’re providing economic opportunity and affordable, safe transportation. Is this something Melbourne wants to stop? Riders and drivers are flocking to the Uber platform precisely because we are solving a problem that has stood for decades in Melbourne — the inability to get a safe, affordable, reliable ride when and where needed.

“Consumers and drivers have told us they love ride-sharing with Uber. Cities that choose not to embrace Uber’s technology are missing out.”

Taxi drivers in cities that have chosen to embrace Uber’s technology would probably disagree with that sentiment. Thousands of European taxi drivers held up traffic across the continent last week to protest Uber; one of the biggest demonstrations brought Trafalgar Square to a standstill for hours.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick was unmoved by the protests. “The taxi industry is trying to protect a monopoly that has been granted them by local officials, so they’re trying to slow down competition,” he told CNN. “So we try to get the story out there about accessibility of transportation, lower cost transportation, higher quality, and I think that story wins over at the end of the day.”

Unfortunately for Kalanick, those aren’t the only sorts of stories circulating about his company — the other stories are about safety.

NBC recently tested Uber’s background checks by putting forward reformed criminal Beverly Locke, who bragged about her “three-page rap sheet”, as an UberX driver. Locke, on probation after nearly beating a woman to death, had prior convictions for burglary, drugs and assault, but was hired to be an UberX driver after filling out the online application.

“I was kind of baffled, still am baffled, how they let me in,” Locke said. “If I had been offered a job like this, knowing that my life of crime was in burglaries and robberies, I would probably be in somebody’s house. I would pick somebody up, take them to their airport, and my second thought would be: Go back to that house.”

In March 2013, an Uber passenger in Washington accused her driver of rape (prosecutors dropped the investigation a month later). In March 2014, a Chicago woman filed a lawsuit against Uber after a driver “repeatedly fondled” her “legs, groin area and breasts”.

In November 2013, a passenger in San Francisco alleged he was physically and verbally abused by an Uber driver. The driver reportedly called the passenger a “dirty Mexican faggot”; when the passenger tried to take a photo of the driver and his license plate to send to Uber so that he could be identified (Uber drivers are not required to display their licenses on the dash), the driver struck him several times. The driver, who passed Uber’s background checks, had a criminal record, including felony and misdemeanor charges, and at least one felony conviction that involved prison time.

Jennifer Gomez, an Uber passenger in Los Angeles, left her phone in the car. When her friend who requested the ride got in touch with the driver to ask if he could bring it back to them, he demanded $500 for it. Gomez tried to get in touch with Uber, and was told by a representative: “Our driver operations team has deactivated the account until he returns your phone. I really hope this works.” (It didn’t work.)

In January 2014, Syed Muzzafar — who had a prior conviction for reckless driving — made headlines for hitting and killing a six-year-old girl while driving for UberX on New Year’s Eve in San Francisco. Uber, however, said he was not working for Uber at the time of the incident, sparking a debate about what “working for” Uber actually means — if a driver is not logged on to the app, they are not technically “working for” Uber at the time, even if they are in their vehicles and driving around.

Christopher Dolan, a lawyer representing the girl’s family, told the New York Times that Uber, by its very nature, distracts drivers. “Cabdrivers who are looking for fares are scanning the streets,” he said. “Uber drivers looking for fares are looking at their phones.” (Several UberX drivers have admitted that the UberX app can be distracting.)

Uber has been heavily criticised for shirking responsibility for these incidents — Valleywag writer Nitasha Tiku was copied into an email from Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, which was sent to the entire Uber press team, in which Kalanick blamed the media for thinking Uber was “somehow liable for these incidents that aren’t even real in the first place”.

Kalanick stressed the need for Uber to “make sure these writers don’t come away thinking we are responsible even when these things go bad”.

In an attempt to improve the company’s reputation for transparency and safety, a ‘Safe Ride Fee’ was added to UberX fares in April, but it had the opposite effect — tech bloggers and Twitter users savaged Uber for, essentially, charging passengers $1 for the privilege of not being assaulted.

Of course, most Uber experiences aren’t horror stories. Free Uber travel has been offered at a number of recent events attended by bmag journalists, and the rides were smooth and without incident. Similarly, just because taxi drivers are subject to regulation doesn’t make them saints.

But if you have a complaint about a traditional cabbie, you can call a phone number, visible in the cab, along with the driver’s full name and ID number. By comparison, Uber – with its disdain for regulations and organisational accountability – almost feels like it’s daring something to happen. There’s a distinct element of Russian Roulette to the experience.

Yellow Cabs managing director Neill Ford thinks it’s unlikely that a significant amount of Yellow Cab drivers will accept Uber jobs on the side, but admits there will be no punishment for those that do. “There’s no real punishment, as long as they don’t bring the name of Yellow Cabs into disrepute,” he says. “We would treat it exactly the same as them being parked on a rank and somebody from the street just hopping in. They’re not representing themselves to be ‘Uber’, they’re turning up in a plainly marked Yellow Cab with their license details on the dash, so we wouldn’t do too much, penalty-wise. We expect our drivers to be entrepreneurs and do the right thing; we just can’t believe they’d give away 20 per cent of their hard earned money.”

If Ford sees Uber as a genuine threat to the likes of Yellow Cabs and Black & White Cabs, he sure isn’t letting on. “If you look at the Uber app, and look to see how many cars Uber has on their app, you’ll find it’s a joke,” he says. “It’s like a person with 10 pies to sell taking on Coles or Woolies. It’s that stupid. But because they’re Google-backed, everything Google does ends up in the press and worldwide. So they get all this noise, but there’s no substance to the noise.

“Uber is the last cab off the rank.”

Would you trust Uber, or do you think it should be regulated? Let us know below!