In a woeful simplification of the issues, legions of people including 500,000 signatories to an online petition mistake TfL’s position as being anti-innovation. Without doubt, there are black cab drivers, who like Trump’s miners yearn for the past, but there are enlightened pro-innovation voices who respect TfL for standing up to the powerful interests behind Uber.
What we are seeing here is the emergence of a better understanding of disruptive technology. Uber’s travails are in many ways a brand issue, which stems from bad practice and an obvious nastiness that surrounded the ex-chief executive Travis Kalanick. They have exposed themselves as the black hat cowboy of disruption, and no public body can be seen to endorse their gunslinging ways, without turning back the clock of consumer and employee rights to the 1930s.
Uber is a bad company, which has proved less capable of hiding its disregard for people than some of its peers. Despite the mask of utopian customer-centricity, the purpose of too many disruptors is to enrich the founders and backers first. Beyond that, it’s to create value for consumers by removing humans from process. And you could argue they do this because they are designed by socially awkward men who see people as an inconvenience to be overcome.
Those who value human kindness are angry at TfL for potentially killing the jobs of 40,000 people at short notice. Their anger should be directed at Uber itself whose total disregard for the rights of its drivers is hard coded into the business model. The drivers after all are simply a tool to collect the data necessary to power a future without them.
Those signing the petition to keep Uber, may have convinced themselves they care for the drivers, but what they really want is impossibly cheap cabs. They are fools to think this market breaking pricing structure will continue when the rest of the market has been driven away. Uber, like many tech businesses, is not what Adam Smith had in mind. Its artificially low prices are like the free heroin given by a dealer, its presence is not appropriate competition but, the efforts of powerful group of financiers to take over the entire business of mobility.
This lack of any kind of moral anchor, or wider social purpose is what’s driven Uber to this apparent cul-de-sac. Getting out of it will require some retrospective injection of purpose into this Tamburlaine of a company.
The taxi business needed to be disrupted. London’s black cabs are no longer fit for purpose and need reform. But it’s not Uber’s right to move so fast the thing it breaks is passenger safety and workers rights. Let’s hope Lyft hurries up and comes to London. It will clean up with an approach that – like other positive disruptors such as Airbnb – bakes values into the business model. Even if they don’t, London’s stance might give us a kinder more responsible Uber, and if it does, then this excellent service will be welcome on London’s streets.
For now though, we can look at those 500,000 signatures and feel glad TfL has the moral backbone those signatories lack. The tragedy here is not the loss of a ride across town for the price of two pints, it’s that 40,000 drivers have become the victim of Uber’s excesses long before the robots could replace them. The likely outcome is concessions from Uber, and a chance for them to be about more than their own dominance. Without that Uber is over.
Chris Clarke is the chief creative officer, international at DigitasLBi.