Uber hopes to start 2013 on a better foot with users and the press

By Sarah Lacy , written on December 31, 2012

From The News Desk

As the countdown to get our global end of year drink on commences, Uber has been doing its damnedest to make sure there's no scandal...this year.

Last week it sent a note to the press explaining -- again -- why they do surge pricing, being totally candid about just how expensive it will get and explaining new features to make sure customers get it. From the email:

Because of such extreme demand on NYE, getting a reliable ride can get really pricey. So that there are no surprises for Uber riders, all Uber customers will be clearly alerted to the current surge pricing multiple which they have to confirm and accept before making any request for a ride. For the more extreme spikes in demand, customers will also have to take Uber’s “Surge Sobriety Test.” And finally Uber’s Fare Estimator feature gives all customers the ability to estimate their fare prior to any ride request.
Separate emails have gone out to riders, and CEO Travis Kalanick also penned a lengthy blog post on the topic. Uber is also holding a live stream "UberChat" at 1 pm EST -- a little over an hour from now -- where it will take questions on Twitter. They also solicited them in advance from the press via email. Expect a flood of more blog posts over-communicating what will happen tonight once that wraps up.

Part of this is driven by last year's New Year's Eve, when Uber caught some users off guard with "surge pricing." At the time, it was an easy-to-rebound-from blip on an otherwise spotless record of consumer bliss. But in hindsight, perhaps it should have been a harbinger. As 2012 wore on, Uber moved from unabashed darling to controversial startup, whose "Robin Hood act" outlived its appeal and usefulness, judging by the company's own actions.

It's rare that we see a company humbled and surging all at the same time, but that's been the latter half of 2012 for Uber.

The turning point came in New York -- not a surprise given its the nation's top Taxi market. Uber's usual shtick with regulators didn't quite wash, meanwhile a boneheaded decision to apply surge pricing during a natural disaster and subsequent contradictions and misrepresentations about why they applied the surge pricing were even worse moves.

The New York experience -- and probably a lot of other things that never came to light -- forced a pretty extreme about face, with Uber going from disruptive municipal brat to collegial deal maker.

Of course, Kalanick would never outright say as much. He's gone from outspoken and strutting all over the press to almost silent, except live chats with pre-screened questions like the one he is holding today. In canned emails to the press and riders he's always maintained that there's no difference in how Uber approaches the world -- certainly nothing that looks close to a climb down.

And yet, as Paul Carr detailed with Kalanick's own words, the company underwent a massive shift this year from casting all taxi unions and local governments as corrupt and unwilling to compromise to actually working with them and retroactively praising their forethought. (Indeed Kalanick seems to have rethought his idea to change the term surge pricing and opt instead for explaining it better. A smart move.)

Our first article on all this back in October was hated by Uber's libertarian fans. In it we suggested that Uber should work with legislators. When they turned around and did just that several months later, those outspoken zealots of disruption were decidedly less vocal. (I should note, Nathaniel and Paul were two of the first tech bloggers to take any issue with Uber. I'd already been warned, after a far more gentle piece, that Kalanick would never speak with us again if we continued to question the company at all. I think our coverage of Uber through the rest of the year telegraphs how well we respond to threats -- even from companies we share investors with.)

But for riders and people who love the service, the shift is a welcome one. Many of us don't care about the Randian undertones of Kalanick's personal life. We just want a super convenient and modern way to get around cities, and for my money, Uber is still the best of the modern taxi apps. (Albeit more of my money, than I'd like...) But the company's disingenuousness has been troubling and clearly self-defeating, judging from the about face.

I'm hopeful that the painstaking explanation of surge pricing Uber is sending to the press and riders days in advance of New Years Eve is another sign that Kalanick -- whether he'd ever admit it or not -- is actually capable of evolving. That's an essential trait of even the most stubborn disruptors in Silicon Valley history. Uber is too great of an idea and product to be spoiled by one man's pride.

Of course, the real sign he's evolving will be when he can actually admit it.