Hilariously, Travis Kalanick says evil taxi companies are forcing him to "get political" and "throw mud"

By James Robinson and Sarah Lacy , written on May 28, 2014

From The News Desk

At today’s Code Conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, Uber co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick made a stunning attempt at historical revisionism, casting his company as the mild mannered everyman that, against its own meek impulses, has found itself under attack from mean old taxi companies.

Kalanick told interviewer Kara Swisher that Uber is the "David" in this fight against the Goliath of the taxi industry. They were just a bunch of guys coding a cool app when suddenly a war broke out, catching them entirely by surprise. As a result, says Kalanick, his company has been forced -- grudgingly -- to get political.

“Are you saying you have to throw mud?" asked Swisher.

"We have to," said Kalanick.

The way Kalanick sees it, the fight is similar to a political race. "Uber is the candidate and [their opponent] is an asshole called Taxi. I'm not totally comfortable with it but we have to bring out the truth of how evil Taxi is." To achieve that, Uber is now hiring campaign managers with experience on successful campaigns to aid in its reluctant fight, that it was totally dragged into, completely against its will.

All of this mild-mannered talk was amusing -- no, hilarious -- from one of the most belligerent CEOs in tech. Earlier this month Kalanick spoke with the Financial Times about his mission to smash the taxi cartels. In that interview, he described himself as a “natural born trust buster.”

In 2012, as legal challenges to Uber continued to escalate Kalanick was very happy to throw mud at the integrity and honesty of the taxi industry. He paced around a conference room with a golf putter in hand while being interviewed by the Wall Street Journal -- apparently putting the journalist more than just a little on edge -- as he explained that Uber had little obligation to -- saw little need to -- play by the industry’s rules.

"We don't have to beg for forgiveness because we are legal. But there's been so much corruption and so much cronyism in the taxi industry and so much regulatory capture that if you ask for permission upfront for something that's already legal, you'll never get it. There's no upside to them."

To Kalanick, the old transportation guard has always been third world. “The system just sucks,” he said at a talk in 2012. “You feel like you’re in a developing world, basically.”

At every turn, Kalanick has been ready with a petulant blog post or tetchy outburst in the face of resistance against him. After its partnership with NYC Taxi fell over late in 2012, he lambasted New York’s taxi commission for putting up “obstacles and roadblocks in order to squash the effort” and that its was all part of “life as a transportation technology innovator, boldly going where no man has gone before.”

When Washington D.C. bureaucrats question Uber’s legality in 2012 it put into action “Operation Rolling Thunder,” mobilising supporters who sent in 50,000 emails and 37,000 tweets. Kalanick then waded deep into the regulatory trenches, negotiating directly with the city council in D.C. to win Uber favor. When Cambridge, Massachusetts tried to shut Uber down he labeled the move anticompetitive and corrupt via his own Twitter account. When Colorado moved against him, he worked double time to get Uber cars on the road before they could so anything definitive.

Uber has always acted like the very definition of an aggressive company. Early this year it was busted in New York for calling up a local and then cancelling rides to a rival car service, in order to try and find out the names of its drivers so it could poach them. And despite Kalanick's hint that it was just getting ready to hire campaign managers, the company has long been set up for a good fight. In September last year, Politico documented its extensive network of coast-to-coast lobbyists and bulldogs with ties to former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, current Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and President Barack Obama himself.

Uber and the taxi industry are on a collision course, yes. The fight should continue to be an intractable dispute between pro-technologist, libertarian fantasy and the pro-government, regulation camp. But years into this struggle, Uber is infamous now for its never-say-die fight and for Kalanick’s adherence to disruption at all costs.

Still, in fairness to Kalanick, he is behaving like a political candidate: Presenting himself as the regular plucky Joe, forced reluctantly to run against an evil opponent and -- golly gosh -- now having to wade into the mud just to ensure that the public can hear the truth. The big question is, with all of his previous statements being a quick Google search away, and with Kalanick apparently unable to present himself as even slightly likeable, is there any chance that voters -- which is to say, users -- will believe a word he says?

[Illustration credit: Brad Jonas for Pando]