redesign | transport: Uber should make safety a selling point

It seems not a day goes by recently that there isn’t bad news about Uber. There was was the driver in Delhi, the Sydney fiasco and most recently assaults by a driver in Boston. Some of the bad news is of Uber’s making; others are inherent in running a rapidly growing business at global scale with tens of thousands of independent actors.

All of this has added up to segment after segment on CNN bruising the company’s once stellar image. The company’s ineptness at PR exceeds even the depths of Groupon’s idiocy in its heyday.

Uber has failed to understand that as the company has grown, so have the expectations of consumers, regulators and the media. A 20-something male in San Francisco will be much more forgiving than a 45-year old mom with toddler in tow in Minneapolis. Regulators are more likely to let a startup slide than a company that is worth $40 billion.

There is also an irrationality to the marketplace that Uber can’t avoid (nor should it bring it up): even though Uber might be statistically safer, it suffers from the negative externality of the collection of bad experiences by independent operators. Most cab companies don’t operate at even a national level, much less a global one. People don’t associate taxi drivers with a specific brand; but they associate Uber drivers with Uber.

Given the structure of Uber model, Uber is undoubtedly safer than traditional taxis. But “we only have sexual assaults once a week” is not a message that you can sell.

There are ways to do much better. And Uber has taken a bizarre approach. Rather than be proactive and use its war chest to build a better, safer product, Uber prefers to wait until something bad happens and then reacts to it slowly. (After first saying, “not our fault! independent drivers!”)

Being proactive would allow Uber to claim the moral high ground. And because it has more resources than Lyft, put further strain on Lyft to catch up.

Uber’s next step should be to create the gold standard of safety and share those plans. It’s not just great for PR — it’s great for passengers, the business and for the world.

I’ve long thought that Uber would have a sizable market with a product like Uber for Parents — playing soccer mom and car pool driver. But that sure as hell can’t happen until the current perceptions of Uber safety continue.