Uber continues to mature from a juvenile upstart thumbing its nose at detractors to a level-headed company willing to meet them halfway. We saw some of this maturation when the company defused a strike by drivers who were unhappy with the company’s lack of communication, and more today with the news that it has hired the Deputy Commissioner of Policy & Planning from New York’s Taxi & Limousine Commission.
This is a marked departure from the company’s previous approach to the commission, which could be described as antagonistic at best, especially given Uber’s repeated complaints about how it regulates the cab and livery industry. The company used to work its users into a frenzy any time regulators threatened its service — now it seems prepared to work with those same regulators, coexisting with the bureaucratic machine it’s long hated.
As I wrote in December 2012, when Uber CEO Travis Kalanick penned another furious blog post after the commission “put up obstacles and road blocks” in front of its UberTAXI service,
Uber’s response, published on its blog, was downright adolescent, just short of CEO Travis Kalanick stamping his feet. He claimed that the TLC ‘privately have said [UberTaxi] is legal under the rules. We’ll bite our tongues and keep our frustration here to ourselves.’ He added, ‘So what can we say… such is life as a transportation technology innovator, boldly going where no man has gone before (well at least for 30 years).’ Kalanick advised users who were upset about UberTaxi’s demise to ‘try UberTAXI in more innovation-friendly cities,’ like Boston and Toronto. If Kalanick bit his tongue he mustn’t have any teeth.
Compared to that schoolyard diatribe, the decision to hire Ashwini Chhabra from the TLC might as well have been made by another company — though it seems that the Uber’s two-pronged approach to getting what it wants from regulators will continue, as Chhabra’s new position is the head of policy development and community engagement, meaning it will be his job to shake hands with regulators and kickstart the ol’ frenzy machine when they don’t cooperate.
As the Awl’s Matt Buchanan notes, Chhabra’s worldview is more aligned with Kalanick’s outlook than with the “anti-innovation” government flacks at the TLC as they’ve been characterized by Uber. At a 2012 hearing on ridesharing apps, Chhabra said this:
It is not the rightful function of government to protect one segment of an industry from competition from another segment. So long as passengers win and the industry over all wins, our goal to be to encourage innovation and forward movement.
Uber couldn’t have picked a better time to mature. It has been embroiled in controversies for the last few months — first because of how it handled of one of its drivers striking and killing a young girl; then because of concerns over the information it gives its drivers; and again because it added a surcharge to all fares in order to cover safety expenses. A company worshipping at the cult of disruption’s feet can’t handle those problems as well as a company that understands the importance of working with both regulators and its customers.