The battle over how ride-sharing providers are regulated got more political on August 19, as Uber announced the hiring of David Plouffe – Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign manager – to spearhead the company’s policy activities and communications efforts.
David Plouffe, Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign manager, has been appointed as Uber's senior vice president of policy and strategy.
Plouffe was named senior vice president of policy and strategy, and will begin his new post with Uber in late September. The move is the latest shot fired in Uber’s fight with traditional taxicab companies, as transportation network companies (TNCs) seek a greater foothold in cities worldwide.
Ride-sharing has become increasingly popular in recent years, as consumers use smartphones to secure rides through apps provided by the TNCs. The app essentially takes the place of a taxicab dispatcher by putting the choice of ride in the hands of the ride-seeker, instead of the company.
Travis Kalanick, CEO of Uber, blogged that his company’s mission of providing reliable transportation for everyone has become a surprisingly controversial topic, leading to a shift in Uber’s approach.
“Our roots are technology, not politics, writing code and rolling out transportation systems,” Kalanick wrote. “The result is that not enough people here in America and around the world know our story, our mission, and the positive impact we’re having. Uber has been in a campaign but hasn’t been running one. That is changing now.”
The controversy between ride-sharing enterprises such as Uber, Lyft, Sidecar and the taxicab industry primarily turns on the question of whether the TNCs are “technology companies” or commercial transportation providers. The taxicab industry argues that TNCs are the latter, and should be subject to the same regulations taxis, limousines and other commercial ride providers adhere to.
Yet, the TNCs have held firm to the ideal that they are technology providers, based on the rationale that they don’t own cars or directly employ drivers. Based on those factors, the TNCs feel they should be exempted from some of the ordinances that apply to taxis and commercial transportation businesses.
Municipal governments have had mixed reactions. Some, like Annapolis, Md., have taken a hardline approach, requiring the TNCs to register as taxicab companies. Others, such as Minneapolis, have crafted new rules for TNCs, helping ease their transition into the marketplace. Baton Rouge, La.; Chicago; Columbus, Ohio; and Seattle are other examples of municipalities that have passed legislation to specifically regulate ride-sharing services.
The taxicab industry wasn’t surprised by Plouffe’s hiring, according to Dave Sutton, a spokesman for “Who’s Driving You?” – a public-safety campaign from the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association (TLPA) about the dangers of unlicensed transportation companies. Sutton said Kalanick mentioned that Uber was looking to bring aboard someone of Plouffe’s ilk during a conference a few months ago.
Plouffe commented in Uber’s blog that the company can help make roads safer and cut down on distracted driving. But Sutton scoffed at the claims, noting that Plouffe’s statement ignores the death of six-year-old Sofia Liu, who was killed in San Francisco by an Uber driver looking for passengers on New Year’s Eve 2013.
A wrongful death lawsuit was filed against Uber in January, claiming Uber is responsible for the death because the driver, Syed Muzzafar, was using the Uber app at the time of the crash. The company denies responsibility, stating that Muzzafar wasn’t using the app at the time of the crash.
Sutton, however, believes app-based ride-sharing is a significant public-safety risk.
“First of all, Uber is the very reason public-safety concerns have emerged in this space, as a result of the company’s … business model, [which] requires a lot of interaction with a phone in order to make certain a driver is instantly responding to ride requests,” Sutton said.
Sutton also pointed out that Liu’s mother, Ang Jiang Liu, said that the last thing she remembers seeing before getting hit by Muzzafar, was the driver looking down, with his face lit up from the light of his phone.
But Plouffe questioned the motives of the taxicab industry, alluding to their potential concern over Uber’s rapid expansion.
“I’ve watched as the taxi industry cartel has tried to stand in the way of technology and big change,” Plouffe said in a statement. “Ultimately, that approach is unwinnable. But I look forward to doing what I can right now to ensure drivers and riders are not denied their opportunity for choice in transportation due to those who want to maintain a monopoly and play the inside game to deny opportunity to those on the outside.”
Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.