On New Year’s Eve 2014, an Uber driver allegedly hit and killed 6-year-old Sophia Liu in San Francisco as she walked with her family in a crosswalk. The driver was not carrying a passenger during the accident, so he wasn't covered by Uber's insurance policy. Uber later extended its insurance coverage to account for the times when drivers are in between rides.
Meanwhile, the girl's family sued Uber for wrongful death. Uber claims the driver was off duty at the time of the incident but the family’s lawyer alleges the driver was distracted by his Uber smartphone app, which accounted for the accident.
"The last thing I saw before the Uber driver killed my little girl, and forever changed my life, was him looking down at his phone," Huan Kuang, the girl's mother, said in a statement in December. "The driver is a man who was working to feed his family and he did wrong, but Uber is the one who makes the drivers look at their phones as part of the way they do business."
San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon charged the driver with vehicular manslaughter in December.
Drivers for the ride-sharing service currently give about 800,000 rides per week and roughly 7,000 new passengers sign-up for the service every month, according to data from car insurance comparison engine The Zebra.
“We are six times bigger today than 12 months ago -- and grew faster this year than last,” Uber CEO Travis Kalanick wrote in a blog post in December. He went onto say that this growth is just the beginning and “it is in the coming years that Uber truly scales and the impact in cities becomes visible.”
Uber was the target of growing driver protests in 2014. In cities, such as New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, unhappy drivers repeatedly gathered in front of Uber offices to criticize the company for raising fees for its service in some cities and maintaining price cuts in others. Another common complaint among drivers was that the app doesn’t allow for tipping.
Uber claims drivers can make up to $90,000 per year, but most drivers say they make far less. The average yearly pay for a full-time Uber driver is $39,000, according to data from The Zebra.
Since Uber drivers are classified as independent contractors, rather than employees, they are tasked with paying their own vehicle maintenance, insurance and gas. And because Uber drivers aren’t employees, Uber doesn’t have to pay for their workers' compensation, unemployment and health insurance.
Uber passengers have always rated their drivers, but it wasn’t until 2014 that it was revealed drivers also keep a scorecard on customers.
The idea of passenger ratings is to help drivers share information about passengers and make the service as safe and respectful as possible. But, to some passengers’ annoyance, Uber keeps those ratings secret.
In July, a 19-year-old techie named Aaron Landy hacked into Uber’s system and figured out a way people could get their rider scores. The hack was hugely popular among users but was shut down by Uber within hours.
With Uber’s rapid expansion in 2014 came dozens of clashes with regulators worldwide. Not only did the ride-sharing service face-off with officials in Germany, France, the Netherlands, India, Thailand, the UK, Spain and China -- to name a few -- it was also served with lawsuits and cease-and-desist letters in the US.
From Pennsylvania to Virginia to Nevada, local lawmakers spoke out against the ride-sharing service saying there needed to be tighter regulations on things like insurance, car inspections and driver background checks. The crux of the officials’ concerns tended to center on safety.
In December, Uber was hit with two lawsuits -- one from the city of Portland, Ore., and the other from California. The California suit alleges Uber misleads its customers about its business and safety practices. In Oregon, regulators want the company to comply with local permitting rules.
Uber has long clashed with ride-sharing rival Lyft, but this year things got dirty. Uber was caught conducting an extensive secret campaign designed to recruit Lyft drivers, whose cars are distinguished by a fuzzy pink mustache.
Technology news site The Verge published a lengthy report in August detailing Uber’s national marketing program -- dubbed Operation SLOG. Reportedly, the idea was to hire independent contractors and ply them with burner phones, credit cards for creating dummy accounts and talking points to surreptitiously lure Lyft drivers to Uber's platform. For ride-sharing companies, more drivers mean more passengers, and ultimately, more money.
Once Operation SLOG was revealed, Uber didn’t deny being the architect of the secretive campaign. It did say in an August blog post that there was a lot of “misinformation” about its tactics, but it’s “always working hard to recruit new drivers onto the platform.”
In a tragic incident in San Francisco in September, an Uber driver allegedly became agitated with his passengers and struck one of them in the face with a claw hammer. The victim was left bleeding, drifting in and out of consciousness and with severe damage to his left eye.
In the wake of the alleged assault, Uber’s terms and conditions came under scrutiny -- calling into question what exactly passengers agree to when they take an Uber ride. The company clearly states in its terms and conditions that it's not responsible for drivers’ actions.
“You acknowledge that you may be exposed to situations involving third party providers that are potentially unsafe, offensive, harmful to minors, or otherwise objectionable,” Uber’s terms and conditions read. “Using the services is at your own risk and judgment.”
Though the vast majority of Uber drivers are safe, several other incidents occurred in 2014 drawing attention to the safety of the ride-sharing service, including more than a dozen allegations of sexual assault and groping, kidnapping and physical assault, according to various media reports.
At a private dinner in late November, Uber’s senior vice president of business Emil Michael told a BuzzFeed reporter that he’d like to spend $1 million to hire a team of “oppositional researchers” to "dig up dirt” on Uber’s critics in the media. At the same time, another BuzzFeed journalist reported that Uber's New York general manager used the company’s geo-location data to track her without her knowledge.
Hence, a massive media storm hit. During that week, Uber made news headlines 1,222 times, according to data from Trendkite. Some critics questioned why the executives weren’t fired -- wondering if their conduct reflected the company's corporate culture. Hashtags like #Ubergate and #deleteUber trended on social networks and Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) sent a letter to Uber CEO Travis Kalanick with a list of his privacy concerns.
Shortly after the incident, Kalanick posted a stream of tweets to Twitter saying Michael showed a "lack of leadership," his remarks were a "departure from our values and ideals," and "folks who make mistakes can learn from them."
After a 26-year-old woman reported being raped and beaten by her Uber driver in Delhi, India, in December, the ride-sharing service was banned from the country’s capital. Just a couple of weeks later, a young woman in Boston, alleged she was choked and raped by her Uber driver.
The alleged perpetrators in both cases were quickly arrested and Uber called the alleged crimes "despicable." In the India case, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said, “We will do everything, I repeat, everything to help bring this perpetrator to justice and to support the victim and her family in her recovery."
These alleged rapes weren't the first for Uber drivers. Various media reports of rape, sexual harassment and groping surfaced in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Ill., Orlando, Fla. and other cities in the past year.
Uber says it conducts stringent and rigorous background checks on its drivers, but these incidents brought a critical eye on such checks. The company’s driver screenings are done completely online. Some safety experts say in-person interviews or training with would-be drivers could help weed out potential criminals.
Uber became the highest valued venture-backed company in the world in 2014 -- blowing all other companies out of the water. With several hefty rounds of financing, the company has raised a total of more than $2.7 billion -- giving it a valuation of at least $41.2 billion. Of that funding, more than $2.4 billion came in 2014.
Uber’s closest rivals in the VC-funded arena are Airbnb, Xiaomi, Dropbox and Snapchat -- all of which are valued at about $10 billion each.
In announcing one of the company’s newest injections of financing in December, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick took a look-back at 2014 and the ride-sharing service’s “significant growing pains.”
"Acknowledging mistakes and learning from them are the first steps," Kalanick wrote in a blog post. The ride-sharing service will work toward "new standards in data privacy," give back more in cities where it operates and work toward refining its corporate culture. "Done right," he wrote, "it will lead to a smarter and more humble company."