by Nick James
on May 22, 2017

Do you love Uber enough to stop it being Mobility's Nokia?

The title of this article may sound inconceivable given that Uber has a market valuation of $70 Billion, and fleets of drivers and paying passengers in over 70 countries, but there have been many other seemingly unassailable tech pioneers that have fallen in the recent past. For every Google there’s an AltaVista, for every Facebook there’s a MySpace and for every iTunes there’s… well the whole record industry really.

Perhaps Uber is more entrenched in the collective conscience than many of the other companies or industries listed above? In fact, to become the ‘Uber’ of a market became the standard elevator pitch for so many start ups that have tried, with varying degrees of success, to apply the Uber model to other areas of our lives. But does any of that mean it is guaranteed to be a long term success? 

It is true that it would take a massive jolt to derail the Uber juggernaut who have been no stranger to PR disasters such as: the secret Greyball software to evade law enforcement stingsthe releasing of a video of CEO Travis Kalanick’s heated argument with a dissatisfied Uber driver, a high profile sexual harassment case which has attracted unwanted attention on an unhealthy corporate culture, The #DeleteUber movement which saw 200,000 people delete the app, which is a drop in the ocean compared to Ubers 40 million average rider per month user base, but it generated yet more unwelcome column inches. Plus the departure of top executives such as President Jeff Jones who publicly stated to Recode:

“It is now clear …that the beliefs and approach to leadership that have guided my career are inconsistent with what I saw and experienced at Uber, and I can no longer continue as president of the ride-sharing business”.

As serious as these issues undoubtedly are, they pale into significance when compared to the lawsuit that Google’s self-driving unit Waymo are bringing against the company. The case is focused on an ex-employee Anthony Levandowski, who Waymo allege stole 14,000 documents detailing it’s self-driving and LIDAR technology. He is now head of R & D at Ubers autonomous vehicle unit.

This week a US District Court Judge referred the case to the US Attorneys office for a criminal investigation. Beyond the potential of criminal charges, which could result in a lengthy jail term for Mr Levandowski, this case also threatens to strangle Ubers automated car R & D department. 

A threat exacerbated by Waymo’s announcement that it is now working with Ubers main rival Lyft. Though Lyft is about 10% the size of Uber with no coverage at all outside the US, it has made recent gains by portraying itself as the anti-Uber (See it’s RideCorp series of adverts) it’s alliance with Waymo is potentially an ominous sign for Travis Kalanick and co.

For those of us deeply interested in the shape of the coming mobility space (read our Mobility On Demand Whitepaper here), the Uber model is an important proof of concept, a steppingstone to the future solutions we and many others have predicted. Really the only element missing is the ability for the vehicles to act autonomously – this would reduce Ubers costs, improve the services coverage and response time. Given it’s large user base and aggressive expansion plans it seemed to have a very good chance of getting a seat at the top table. But if Waymo’s case results in it being precluded from developing self-driving Ubers, the question becomes, if a cheaper more convenient service, probably one using autonomous cars, were to emerge would any of that huge user base remain loyal?

Personally I doubt it, the brand has been problematic for many since the beginning, but it was so convenient that most put aside their reservations for want of a viable alternative. But now its take-no-prisoners attitude has been further tarnished with the recent high profile issues, does it have any loyalty and love from its audience, or is it just a faceless commodity like the taxi businesses it so ruthlessly replaced?

There are obviously lots of eventualities that could yet play out, like selling up, or if it is still possible after the implosion of the brand, partnering with one of the other companies jostling for position on the mobility starting line may become the most attractive option.

One thing is for sure though, if Waymo’s suit is successful and Uber cannot join the autonomous car mobility package market, then it risks becoming nothing more than footnote in the future mobility world.


Nick James

Nick is passionate about all things tech, and completed the Google Squared course in 2015. He is always looking for new ways that technology can answer our client's challenges. Clarity's resident wordsmith, Nick loves creative writing in his spare time and, like some of Britain's greatest authors, also enjoys a good gin.