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
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."
Uber kicked off January running its service in about 60
cities. By the end of the year it had expanded to more than 250 cities in 50 countries, including China, South Africa and Indonesia.
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 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
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
What about those secret ratings?
Uber passengers have always rated their drivers, but it
wasn’t until 2014 that it was revealed drivers also keep a scorecard on
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.
Battles with regulators
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
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.
Lyft rivalry and Operation SLOG
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.”
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The hammer assault
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
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
Screenshot by Dara Kerr/CNET
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.
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."
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.
Boatloads of cash
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."