Uber has been rocked by a steady stream of scandals and negative publicity in recent years, including revelations of questionable spy programmes, a high-stakes technology lawsuit, claims of sexual harassment and discrimination and embarrassing leaks about executive conduct.
The PR disasters culminated in CEO Travis Kalanick resigning from the company this week and promises of bold reform that largely ignored the ride-hailing company’s strained relationship with drivers.
The Guardian lists a timeline of some of the most consequential controversies.
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick faced backlash for a sexist joke about his increasing desirability, telling an Esquire reporter: “We call that Boob-er.”
Uber faced accusations that it booked thousands of fake rides from its competitor Lyft in an effort to cut into its profits and services. Uber recruiters also allegedly spammed Lyft drivers in an effort to recruit them away from the rival.
Uber executive Emil Michael suggested digging up dirt on journalists and spreading personal information of a female reporter who was critical of the company. He later apologised. It was also revealed that Uber has a so-called “God View” technology that allows the company to track users’ locations, raising privacy concerns. One manager had accessed the profile of a reporter without her permission.
A former forensic investigator for Uber testified that employees regularly spied on politicians, exes and celebrities, including Beyoncé.
Regulators in California ordered Uber to remove self-driving vehicles from the road after the company launched a pilot without permits. On the first day of the programme, the vehicles were caught running red lights, and cycling advocates in San Francisco also raised concerns about the cars creating hazards in bike lanes. The company blamed red-light issues on “human error”, but the New York Times later claimed that the company’s statements were false and that the autonomous technology failed.
Uber was forced to pay $20m to settle allegations that the company duped people into driving with false promises about earnings. The Federal Trade Commission claimed that most Uber drivers earned far less than the rates Uber published online in 18 major cities in the US.
A #DeleteUber campaign went viral after the company lifted surge pricing during a taxi protest at a New York airport against Donald Trump’s travel ban. A total of roughly 500,000 users reportedly deleted accounts after the scandal erupted.
CEO Travis Kalanick resigned from Trump’s advisory council after users threatened a boycott. Kalanick said: “Joining the group was not meant to be an endorsement of the president or his agenda but unfortunately it has been misinterpreted to be exactly that.”
Former Uber engineer Susan Fowler went public with allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination, prompting the company to hire former US attorney general Eric Holder to investigate her claims. The story sparked widespread debate about sexism and misconduct across Silicon Valley startups.
Anthony Levandowski, head of Uber’s self-driving programme Waymo, the self-driving car company owned by Google’s parent corporation Alphabet, filed a lawsuit against Uber, accusing the startup of “calculated theft” of its technology. The suit, which could be a fatal setback for Uber’s autonomous vehicle ambitions, alleged that a former Waymo employee, Anthony Levandowski, stole trade secrets for Uber. Uber later fired the engineer.
The New York Times reported that Uber for years used a tool called Greyball to systematically deceive law enforcement in cities where the company violated local laws. The company used Greyball to identify people believed to be working for city agencies and carrying out sting operations, the Times reported. The revelations led to the launch of a federal investigation.
Kalanick was caught on camera arguing with his own Uber driver, who complained about the difficulty making a living with the company’s declining rates. The embattled CEO yelled at the driver: “Some people don’t like to take responsibility for their own shit. ... They blame everything in their life on somebody else. Good luck!” He later issued an apology and said he intended to get “leadership help”.
Tech news site the Information reported that a group of senior employees, including Kalanick, visited an escort and karaoke bar in Seoul in 2014, leading to an HR complaint from a female marketing manager. Patrons at the bar typically select women to sing karaoke with before taking them home.
News leaked of a secret programme that Uber internally called “Hell” that allowed the company to spy on its rival Lyft to uncover drivers working for both companies and to help steer them away from the competitor.
Uber agreed to pay drivers in New York City tens of millions of dollars after admitting it underpaid them for more than two years by taking a larger cut of fares than it was entitled. The average payout per driver is expected to be about $900.
Uber revealed that it had fired more than 20 employees following an investigation into the sexual harassment claims and workplace culture.
Reports revealed that a top Uber executive had obtained the medical records of a woman who was raped by an Uber driver, allegedly to cast doubt upon the victim’s account. The executive, Eric Alexander, was fired after journalists learned of the incident, according to tech website Recode and the New York Times. The woman later sued the company for violating her privacy rights and defaming her. A vigil in Delhi held in support of a woman who was raped by her Uber driver in the Indian capital
Kalanick announced that he would take an indefinite leave of absence as the company released a damning report on workplace culture that recommended Uber “review and reallocate” the CEO’s responsibilities. He has now resigned.
David Bonderman resigned from Uber’s board after he made a sexist joke during an all-staff meeting about reforming the company and combatting sexual harassment. The venture capitalist had joked that there was “likely to be more talking” with another woman on the board. He apologised and stepped down hours later.