What is Uber? Forget the sharing economy – it’s just a libertarian scam
Serf, noun: a laborer bound under the feudal system to work on his lord’s estate.
Uber is a lot. Last year 5.2 billion people took a ride in an Uber. And the company lost an average of 58 cents on each ride.
On Thursday, the most controversial tech company of its generation will launch the most anticipated share sale of the year. There are plenty of reasons why it may fail, and many more that suggest that could be a good thing.
There’s a lot of money riding on this working out. Uber has burned through $24.7bn in private investment over the past decade, according to Crunchbase, and will need a lot more if it’s going to succeed. Hence the initial public offer.
But what is Uber? Unlike Amazon, which hammered the retail sector to get its start, then became the king of cloud storage; or Facebook and Google, which turned our lives into their very profitable product, Uber has got where it is today not so much by creating something new, but by spending billions to smash something old.
Not long ago it was trendy in tech circles to describe yourself as “the Uber of” – dog walking, nursing, babysitting – you name it. What that meant is someone was hoping to create a platform that would dominate a low-margin business and make loads of money for the app’s backers and owners. The workers, not so much.
But Uber may well have burned that business model to the ground. Sure, Uber has an amazing app and data, but its incredible rise has been mainly fueled by its backers’ willingness to subsidise taxi rides in the hope that one day Uber will crush the opposition, create a monopoly, and dominate transportation in a way that allows it to make the kind of ever-rising profits that will keep Wall Street happy.
For now that means creating a caste of low-paid drivers, lured by the promise of flexible work hours then – like the serfs of old – tied to their landlord by car debts and forced to work their land ever harder to keep up with the payments. No wonder the peasants are revolting.
One day soon – it hopes – those drivers will go the way of horses when the car killed the horse and buggy. Replaced by a fleet of robo-cars that – in Uber’s libertarian dreams – will make car ownership and public transport a thing of the past.
It didn’t start this way. Uber used to be called part of the “sharing economy”. The idea was people would collaborate, peer to peer, to offer services such as rides or places to stay. Drivers could do what they loved – make art, open a bakery – then make a little cash driving on the side. Sadly only the “little cash” part of that dream came true.
According to a study conducted by Ridester, a ride-hail industry publication, the median hourly pay for ride-share drivers is $14.73 with tip. Because drivers aren’t employees, or so Uber argues, that figure doesn’t include all the unavoidable expenses like gas, insurance, cleaning and car depreciation incurred while working. Ridester estimates those costs total $5 per hour at the low end, bringing that hourly wage to $9.73 per hour or less. In many states you would make more working in McDonald’s and drivers claim the company has recently been cutting their pay as it prepares for its IPO.
All this penny-pinching from a company that has raised more cash before its IPO than any other in history. So if not drivers, what are they spending their money on?
Riders, mainly. Uber loses money pretty much every time someone gets in a car. It lost $1.8bn in 2018 and $2.2bn in 2017 and isn’t likely to make a real profit anytime soon.
The real money for Uber lies in its ambitious plans beyond cab rides. According to the company’s IPO filing Uber’s “mission is to ignite opportunity by setting the world in motion”. Uber Eats will deliver your food; Uber Freight will take on UPS and FedEx; its dockless e-bikes and e-scooters will transform the world’s transportation structures.
But transformation on that scale needs goodwill, a resource Uber has burned as fast as its cash pile. The company has been involved in a multi-car pile-up of scandals involving abuse of data, misleading drivers, gender discrimination, intellectual property theft and worse. According to CNN, at least 103 Uber drivers in the US were accused of sexually assaulting or abusing passengers in the previous four years.
Regulators across the world are fighting back. New York City’s Taxi and Limousine Commission has set a minimum wage of $17.22 per hour after expenses for ride-hailing drivers. More cities will follow.
After years of tech worship, the shine has come off Silicon Valley, and Uber has done more than its fair share of the tarnishing. The idea that New York, San Francisco or London (three cities that account for a huge chunk of Uber’s business) will hand over more of their transport infrastructure to Uber looks increasingly unlikely. Shares in Lyft, Uber’s smaller rival, tanked after its share sale. Wall Street seems more skeptical of its promise than its original backers.
None of this will matter to Uber’s early investors or its founders. Travis Kalanick’s 8.6% stake in the company is about to make him a bona fide billionaire. Meanwhile, drivers are striking in protest.
While we wait to see of Uber will indeed be the new Amazon or flame out like Webvan – the fallen star of the first tech boom – we do have one thing to thank Uber for. The dream of the sharing economy has been exposed as a libertarian sham propped up by would-be monopolists with too much money. The dog walkers of the world should breathe a sigh of relief.