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Uber Alles: Rideshares Are Convenient, Until They Aren't -- Then You're on Your Own 

Wednesday, Dec 11 2013

No one is ever going to truly know just what transpired in that UberX vehicle between aggrieved passenger James Alva and equally indignant driver Daveea Whitmire. It's a boozy, high-tech Rashomon, with both men offering utterly contradicting narratives of the ill-fated voyage, wholly exonerating themselves while wholly damning the other.

Alva says his attempts to offer directions for the 0.7-mile voyage from a Castro bar to his Upper Market home launched Whitmire into a racist, homophobic tirade against "dirty Mexican faggots" before the driver twice swatted the iPhone out of Alva's hands. Whitmire denies this, claiming instead Alva refused to disclose a destination, and belittled him from the start. "He's an evil dude," Whitmire says. "I never touched the guy."

Per Uber's computer-generated receipt, the entire ride lasted just 2 minutes, 55 seconds.

Both men unloaded their conflicting tales onto the cops shortly after 2 a.m. on Nov. 24. The responding officer generated an incident report that reads like a page-long shrug. It does, however, reveal that Alva informed a 911 dispatcher he'd been "punched in the face," but admitted to police he hadn't. That, along with the wildly contradicting narratives, led the cops to take no action. Alva and Whitmire went their separate ways, both fuming, and both clinging to their disparate versions of the truth.

It was not an evening that lived up to Uber's pledge of "safe, stylish, and convenient" transport.

In just a few short years, Uber, along with its fellow app-based, so-called "rideshare" operations, has eviscerated the taxi industry. San Francisco's ascendant population has rapidly modified its migratory behavior: Those exiting bars and clubs are now wont to look down and punch on a smartphone rather than look up and hail a cab.

For people who simply desire to get from here to there, this isn't a bad thing. It's hard to imagine a business model more ripe for disruption than the taxi: The system manages to compound eons of corruption, inefficiency, cronyism, and caked-on sleaziness with stultifying layers of overarching regulations. Uber et al. have stripped the gears out of the archaic machine; it runs smoothly out of the device in the palm of your hand, a cutting-edge service for a cutting-edge city.

And that's all well and good. Until something goes wrong. And then you're on your own.

Once the established components of the livery business have been disposed of, there's nothing left to put back when the system falls apart. Not that Uber has any desire to do so. It and other companies adamantly disavow responsibility for mishaps befalling those who drive or ride in the cars bearing their imprimatur. Along with the rather fanciful notion that these billion-dollar entities are "rideshares" akin to the grab-a-spot-in-my car-when-I'm-goin'-to-L.A. public service announcements once featured on community radio stations, the industry boilerplate is that rideshares are merely high-tech platforms connecting riders and drivers, floating in an ethereal realm above the legal and regulatory fray.

There is, however, a very low-tech gadget that would have neatly resolved Alva and Whitmire's intractable recollections. A gadget, in fact, that has been mandated in San Francisco taxis since 2003.

It's called a camera. But Uber vehicles don't come equipped with cameras — a decision spawning winners and losers. The winner is Uber.

The losers are everyone else.

It's difficult to watch a screen split into fourths, with the quadrants displaying an interior shot of a taxi, a view out the front window, a GPS map, and the vehicle's speed. It's even more difficult to watch what's filmed.

Images captured by these taxi cameras and viewed by your humble narrator include family after family rattling around the vehicle during accidents; hot beverages erupting onto sweaters post-impact; or a violent couple exchanging smacks, kicks, and nose-gouges. But the most ghastly footage of all is a little boy darting, with his back to traffic, in front of a cab, sailing through the air, and landing in a heap. Furious family members race into the street. The driver immediately calls 911.

The video in question reveals that the cab was traveling at exactly 25 mph — the speed limit — while the driver was looking forward with both hands placed on the wheel. The boy, who was not seriously injured, all but leaped in front of the car.

A camera costs hundreds of dollars. But legal settlements cost many thousands, and legal judgments can run into the millions.

Along with their app-based kin, Uber vehicles are camera-free zones. Any pedestrian or passenger witnessing a cabbie driving like Steve McQueen or engaging in other undesirable behavior can simply note the taxi's number and the time of day, call 311, and the digital footage should find its way to a Municipal Transportation Authority inspector. But with Uber and its ilk, it's your word against theirs.

Simply put: Rashomon.

When asked why Uber vehicles don't come equipped with cameras, spokesman Andrew Noyes chalks it up to the company not owning the cars or employing the drivers. But when queried if Uber would contract with a third-party car service that didn't equip its vehicles with seat belts, he replies in the negative.

So why not require seat belts and cameras? "I don't feel comfortable talking about that on the record," Noyes says. "I don't want to play that game." He does say that Uber goes "to great lengths" to ensure the aforementioned "safe, stylish, and convenient" experience.

And that seems to be working pretty damn well. Purported internal documents last week leaked to Valleywag indicate the company is on track to rake in a prodigious $210 million in 2013 — nearly 70 percent more than industry insiders optimistically predicted even earlier this year.

Uber is, to put it mildly, filling a need. And it's a genius business model: Like a friend with benefits, it reaps all of the fun, while distancing itself from the difficult and complicated elements of life. The company has long denied responsibility for unstylish, legally questionable driver behavior or unsafe, inconvenient accidents. Past accusations of wrongdoing by Uber drivers have spurred convoluted messages; following allegations a Washington, D.C., driver attacked passengers, CEO Travis Kalanick informed the world via e-mail that it'd be ridiculous to "come away thinking we are responsible even when these things do go bad." Uber's terms of service explicitly eschew liability with regards to its third-party partner entities, such as the one that owns the Toyota Prius Whitmire was driving.

If Uber sees itself as beyond legal reproach — and all signs indicate it does — it's hard to conceive of a reason for it to install a safety feature like a camera into its vehicles. If Alva is being truthful, a camera would have confirmed the antisocial and even criminal behavior of an Uber driver. And if Whitmire is being truthful — well, what's the point of investing dollar one to exonerate a man you're not legally responsible for?

In Uber's world, it's Uber uber alles.

Taxis are nearly as old as
civilization itself — and some of the men operating boats-for-hire on the Nile 4,000 years ago may yet still be on the waiting list to earn their medallions.

The death struggle between "rideshares" and conventional taxis is just the latest iteration of new technology undercutting the establishment. In 1623, London's aquatic taxi operators bemoaned the coachmen who "rob us of our livings and carry 500 fares from us." Alas, this was a battle that would sink the boatmen. As the land-based cabbies might have put it, thar be an appe forre thatte.

By 1634, Britain's King Charles I imposed regulations on the number of cabs rattling through city streets in the name of congestion and safety. The business of determining just who could drive a cab soon descended into an orgy of nepotism and graft. Four centuries down the road, that's all still happening.

Uber, Lyft, Sidecar, and the rest took a different approach. Instead of onerous regulations and a broken system, they extolled the free market — and no system. And, like gambling, that works great — when you're winning. Yet passengers soaring through the windshield or treated poorly by a driver might appreciate knowing just who the hell is ultimately responsible. Drivers crunched between dump trucks or blackmailed by inebriated riders might appreciate the longstanding investigation and discipline process undertaken by city officials — whose work resides in the public record.

Uber's gaudy financial numbers don't include the 14 bucks it refunded to Alva. And they also won't include much in the way of payments to Whitmire. After immediately suspending the driver, Noyes last week told us Whitmire was no longer employed by the town-car service partnering with Uber. This news hadn't reached Whitmire, however. It was left for SF Weekly to inform him. He soon called back, claiming the partner entity (neither he nor Noyes would name it) told him he was, in fact, still on its roster.

Confronted with this information, Noyes admits that, yes, the partner company hadn't canned Whitmire. But, no matter — the spokesman says Whitmire will never drive for Uber again.

In his brief career as an Uber driver, it's clear that Whitmire never understood who, exactly, he was working for. But perhaps that was fitting. Why should he know more than anyone else?

Historical material was gleaned from The Taxicab: An Urban Transportation Survivor, by Gorman Gilbert and Robert E. Samuels

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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