Is Uber’s “commitment to improving safety” enough?

Three and a half years ago I wrote an article titled “Why Uber needs to roll out its safety measures ASAP”. Uber was facing a tirade of safety calamities and I had just founded a start-up, Luna, that aimed to be your personal assistant for safety. We had conducted surveys, and found that over 50% of our respondents had taken a taxi to feel safer at night rather than walking. I argued that the tech industry had neglected one of the most crucial problems in life, personal safety.

So after a few years have passed, has anything changed?

Now living in San Francisco, on my way to the grocery store, a huge billboard caught my eye. “Relax they know you’re on your way” in lights and a picture of an assured woman in the back seat of a black car. This was part of Uber’s “Moving Forward” brand campaign detailing how they’re “committed to improving safety for every rider and driver” on their network.

Back home in London, this week the ride-sharing company begins its appeal against the Transport for London’s decision to not renew its license in London. The regulator had banned Uber after finding the company “not fit and proper to hold a license”. They raised concerns that “Uber has demonstrated a lack of corporate responsibility in relation to a number of other issues which have potential public safety implications.”

But is there any substance behind this campaign? Or is this just an opportune brand campaign timed with Uber’s new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi’s honeymoon period?

Dara Khosrowshahi has said safety is his №1 priority for the company this year. At Uber’s Moving Forward and Safety pages, they outline features and initiatives that underline their “commitment to improving safety”.

First up they’re finally running annual screening and history checks for drivers. This was something that they should’ve implemented from the start if they had been more serious about safety and background checks.

Next up, they’re giving you reminders to share your trip details with loved ones. The ability to share your trip has been around for a few years now. You can designate five “Trusted Contacts” to share your trip details with them so they can track you on your journey.

Probably the most important update is the partnership with RapidSOS. Though it’s only available in select US cities, the app automatically shares your location and trip details with authorities once you call 911. This is the so called “panic button” that users and press have been waiting for.

They’ve packaged this all in the “Safety Center” part of the app and made this more prominent so you can “access safety tools and tips directly from the map during every ride”.

Are these changes enough to really make an impact on improving safety?

They’re definitely a step in the right direction and even though it seems like a lot of the announcements are just a part of re-branding narrative, Uber is at least finally addressing something they had previously shrugged off.

Hopefully these features are just the start of a slew of changes that Uber can roll out to improve personal safety. Here are three things I’d love to see implemented:

1. An incident response squad

In my previous experiences of calling Uber’s customer service, their response has often been atrocious. They need a lot more support to handle critical situations and a local incident response squad tasked with combatting safety issues in every city (in partnership with local authorities) would go a long way to improve customer service.

2. A dynamic route checker

In previous serious incidents when ride-sharing drivers have committed crimes, they’ve taken detours away from the suggested GPS route. Uber should be able to detect these route changes and alert riders and authorities that drivers are veering off routes and that an incident may occur. Uber’s practice of location-data mining is already well-known, so why not bring it to good use.

3. Driver training

It’s extremely easy to become an Uber driver from the get go. All you need is a valid driver’s license, proof of vehicle’s insurance and a driver profile photo. As Uber expands its network across countries, it’s forced to bring in inexperienced and untrained drivers to meet the demand of new customers. Many of whom have minimal experience in driving or customer service. This in turn can make customers feel unsafe during their trip. Additional basic driver training could go a long way in preventing mishaps.

If safety really is Uber’s no. 1 priority now, this recent announcement needs to be the start of more things to come. Only time will tell if the company has done enough.