In what has been a chaotic month for Uber, the ride-sharing giant is finding it difficult to strike a balance as a disruptive company while abiding by the rules. While the company has reportedly been working closely with the California DMV to file an application for self-driving vehicle permits, it also has been internally flagging law enforcement agents and other city workers around the globe, according to a piece in The New York Times.
The tool, called Greyball, was a part of a larger violation of terms and services (VTOS) program the gathered data from either credit card information or public record to flag certain riders. In a statement from the company to the Times, the VTOS is used to identify and deny ride requests to users who are violating the terms of service, “whether that’s people aiming to physically harm drivers, competitors looking to disrupt our operations, or opponents who collude with officials on secret ‘stings’ meant to entrap drivers.”
According to the Times, the program would send notifications to riders when a law enforcement agent or city worker requested a ride. The app would either show that there are no available cars in the area or would overpopulate the digital map with more cars than were actually available. Uber has used these methods to evade authorities in U.S cities including Boston, Paris and Las Vegas while more common internationally in Australia, China and South Korea.
Legislators have often found themselves scrambling to regulate ride-sharing services before the companies are able to move into new markets. Uber has publicly clashed with cities including Philadelphia and Austin, Texas.
Uber also has had troubles with its home state of California. The company began picking up passengers in its self-driving Volvos in San Francisco in December of 2016. The DMV quickly announced that the ride-sharing company had not received a permit required to conduct testing on public roads. The DMV was therefore forced to revoke the registration of the vehicles until the company complied, just as every other company had done.
On Dec. 13, the agency issued a statement saying, “The California DMV encourages the responsible exploration of self-driving cars. We have a permitting process in place to ensure public safety as this technology is being tested. Twenty manufacturers have already obtained permits to test hundreds of cars on California roads. Uber shall do the same.”
According to the department, the permit comes with a $150 fee and can be issued within 72 hours.
At the time, the company said it believed the permit was unnecessary because its cars always had drivers behind the wheel, ready to take over. “The self-driving Ubers that we have in both San Francisco and Pittsburgh today are not capable of driving ‘without … active physical control or monitoring’ said Anthony Levandowski, one of the self-driving vehicle project heads in a company blog post. In response to the state’s action, the company decided to move its vehicles to Arizona.
But Uber appears to have shifted its thinking and will work to resume testing on California public roads. According to The Mercury News, the company has been working closely with the state DMV to file an application for permits for its self-driving vehicles. Two of the cars have been spotted in San Francisco, but are only being used for road mapping services.
This paradigm shift for the company comes on the heels of weeks of bad publicity. A former engineer of the company wrote a post about the company’s problems in dealing with sexual harassment. CEO Travis Kalanick was also caught in a video dismissing an Uber driver’s concern over wages. At one point he is caught dismissing the the driver’s concerns, saying, “Some people don't like to take responsibility for their own [expletive]. They blame everything in their life on somebody else.”
Kalanick issued a public apology acknowledging that he feels ashamed of his actions and intends to get help on being a better leader. Applying for the permit could be the company’s first step.