You are here

No One Behind the Wheel at Uber

‘If I told you then that we were going to get people to ride in other people’s cars, you would have said I was crazy,” recalls John Zimmer, president of Lyft, which, ahead of Uber, pioneered in offering rides in strangers’ personal cars. Mr. Zimmer was speaking of a time not so long ago: 2012.

The quote comes from Adam Lashinsky’s “Wild Ride: Inside Uber’s Quest for World Domination,” a book of mostly unrealized promise. Uber’s rapid rise, eclipsing Lyft and the other pioneer, Sidecar, invites scrutiny. Having begun operations in 2010 as UberCab, a limousine-hailing service in San Francisco, Uber has become the most highly valued startup in the world. It boasts a valuation of $69 billion in its most recent financing.

Uber’s story also encompasses many unsavory elements, including sabotaging Lyft with phony ride requests, attracting a stack of testimonials by former employees about sexism and sexual harassment, and deploying software to deceive government regulators. Earlier this month, a U.S. judge in San Francisco asked the Justice Department to investigate allegations that Uber engaged in trade secret theft to advance its self-driving car initiative.

The book provides a ride that is not so much wild as short and jerky. It is part profile piece, giving Uber’s chief executive, Travis Kalanick, a platform to spout gaseous nonsense, and part company history. But little is revealed about Uber’s inner workings that has not been reported in greater depth elsewhere by journalists covering the company for newspapers and tech blogs. The failure of “Wild Ride” to go deep is a surprise because in his previous book, “Inside Apple” (2012), Mr. Lashinsky did a fine job of burrowing into a company notorious for its secrecy.

WILD RIDE

By Adam Lashinsky 
Portfolio, 228 pages, $28

Mr. Lashinsky devotes a lot of space to displaying his own privileged access to Mr. Kalanick. The book opens with an account of the author accompanying Mr. Kalanick on a business trip in China, during which nothing of note is learned; this trip is also used to pad a later chapter. There are warm-up chapters describing Mr. Kalanick’s boyhood and pre-Uber startups, in which Mr. Lashinsky strains mightily to see glimmers of Mr. Kalanick’s future. And the book closes with a chapter recounting a single evening that Mr. Lashinsky spent with Mr. Kalanick, who likens himself, in apparent seriousness, to Alexander Hamilton.

 

These pages are wasted because what Mr. Kalanick shares with the author is laughably self-serving—the energetic boy who was the top ticket seller for pancake fundraisers, for example, or the dolorous adult who today feels “misunderstood” by his critics. Or it’s just plain unintelligible. Mr. Lashinsky gives over three full pages to Mr. Kalanick’s exposition on the symbolism embedded in the office design of Uber’s headquarters in San Francisco. At the end, the author tells us: “I never quite figure out how K-13 ceilings, video game wars, and Italian piazzas fit together at Uber. But perhaps some things aren’t meant to be understood.”

The narrative of Uber’s birth and growth occupies the middle portion of the book. Credit for UberCab’s founding goes to Garrett Camp, who registered the domain name and put in the first $250,000. He persuaded Mr. Kalanick, who had acted as part-time adviser, to join when the service had been operating for four months.

Uber’s first venture beyond limos was UberX, but when it was introduced in 2012 it offered rides only in hybrid cars purchased by limo companies and driven by their licensed drivers. Then Uber watched Lyft’s success in “ride sharing,” matching riders to ordinary drivers with ordinary cars. The next year Uber copied Lyft, opening UberX to all drivers and all cars; soon it was growing more quickly than its rivals.

Uber had to invest heavily in subsidies to attract drivers and riders. But the company says that its customers, over time, end up using its service more frequently, producing what it calls “negative churn”—the opposite, as Mr. Lashinsky explains, of the churn that measures “the rate at which users abandon a service.” By early 2016 Uber said it was profitable in 108 cities, about a fourth of the roster of cities in which it had operations.

The book provides a chapter about Uber’s drivers, who have endured multiple rate cuts, beginning in 2014. They are also frustrated that Uber, unlike Lyft, forbids them to collect tips within the smartphone app. Mr. Lashinsky signs up to be a driver himself, but he learns instantly that “the pay stinks” and loses interest in his behind-the-wheel investigation.

Uber is moving as quickly as it can to rid itself of human drivers, making major investments in developing autonomous vehicles. At a tech-industry conference, Mr. Kalanick explained the rationale in his inimitable way: “When there’s no other dude in the car, the cost of taking an Uber anywhere becomes cheaper than owning a vehicle.” The precise reference for this quotation, as for other details that come from secondary sources, is not provided; inexplicably, the book lacks footnotes or endnotes.

Mr. Lashinsky says that Travis Kalanick is the very definition of “what it meant to be a tech entrepreneur in the second decade of the twenty-first century.” By this claim he means someone who is equally adept in computer science and logistics. But “Wild Ride” doesn’t show us Mr. Kalanick doing anything much, let alone demonstrating mastery in either realm. We see only The Dude, smarting from external criticism, wanting assurance from the author that he saw Mr. Kalanick not as an “asshole” but as a “truth seeker.”

Some of Mr. Lashinsky’s narrative can serve as an introduction to Uber’s founding. But whenever Mr. Kalanick, Uber’s pontificating “warrior-philosopher-pioneer,” is given the wheel, “Wild Ride” takes us nowhere we want to go.

Mr. Stross is a professor of business at San José State University and the author of “A Practical Education: Why Liberal Arts Majors Make Great Employees,” to be published in September.

Appeared in the May. 23, 2017, print edition as 'No One At the Wheel.'