Editor's Note: The following is a guest post from Bradley Tusk, founder and CEO of Tusk Ventures, a venture capital fund that supports high-growth startups. Tusk Ventures is an investor in Bird.
Lacuna, a company that helped LADOT develop its Mobility Data Specification (MDS), is a client of the related firm Tusk Strategies.
Uber vs. big city regulators used to be a fight you’d circle weeks ahead on your calendar. Words would be exchanged. Accusations levied. Punches thrown. It was exciting, and in the early days, Uber usually won.
Lately, that's not so much the case. As Uber lurches from one losing regulatory battle to the next, its reputation — and the odds of success in each new fight — has waned. On a broad level, New York City successfully imposed caps on the number of TNC drivers allowed. London kicked Uber out altogether. California reclassified ride-hailing drivers as full-time employees, changing the entire economic structure of each Uber ride; a judge rejected Uber’s request to continue business as usual while it sues the state.
It’s clear that regulators no longer fear or respect Uber’s political capabilities. But Uber, even after losing $8.5 billion in value since its IPO, is still a major, multibillion-dollar public corporation exploring new realms of transportation.
Over the past few years, Los Angeles has become a playground for electric scooters. The technology makes sense for a city like L.A., but adding tens of thousands of new vehicles of any kind invariably creates problems.
The Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT), not unreasonably, wants to figure out how to better manage the flow of scooters, so it asked the operators to participate in a data-sharing program. Everyone agreed, including Uber's micromobility arm, Jump, however that company neglected to comply with the program due to concerns that sharing rider data violates customer privacy.
L.A. responded by revoking Jump’s operating permit to deploy e-scooters and bikes. Uber appealed the decision, and just this week, lost that appeal. It previously threatened to sue, so presumably the fight goes on from here.
Traditionally, Uber has had the tools to win a fight like this, but things have changed. Here's why LADOT is likely to prevail:
1. Uber lost its greatest political asset: customer loyalty. Uber’s greatest defender used to be its customers and drivers. Not anymore. The company spent half a billion dollars on a marketing campaign in 2018 to rehabilitate its reputation, but the internal tracking numbers on consumer sentiment reportedly haven’t moved from rock bottom.
Few customers are willing to take time out of their day to advocate for a company they see as predatory. Drivers are outright hostile. So the single most effective tool used in the history of tech vs. regulators – overwhelming politicians with real people – is no longer available. That weakens Uber considerably.
2. Uber’s stark fall in the stock market reduced its ability to intimidate cities. When Uber was seen as a financial juggernaut with unlimited resources, regulators worried about what entering a prolonged battle with Uber meant. Today, as a public company that consistently reports multibillion-dollar quarterly losses, regulators know Uber can’t devote limitless resources to political fights. In fact, as Uber tries to calm nervous investors, its promises to keep cutting costs only further undermines their ability to intimidate anyone.
3. Uber doesn’t have the leadership or stomach for a brutal fight. When Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi was brought in to replace former CEO Travis Kalanick, he was chosen for his equanimity, his likeability, his innate calm. Those are often useful qualities but they’re not a recipe for political success. Under Khosrowshahi’s watch, Uber has lost political fight after political fight. No one’s afraid of them.
4. Uber is being undercut by its rivals. If every scooter company refused to provide Los Angeles with its data, then the industry would have a consistent narrative to point to. But when all but one company complies, the narrative changes. Instead of this being about privacy or principle, it’s about Uber trying to protect its business model at the expense of city residents. No one has sympathy for that.
5. Uber can’t focus its resources on any single fight. Los Angeles isn’t the only city asking for scooter data. Just last week, the City of Chicago validated L.A.'s approach, saying data standards are "an absolute necessity" for a successful scooter program. L.A. is just one front of the war. And as any general knows, when you’re fighting battles on multiple fronts, you tend to lose.
Ultimately, whether or not LADOT has more access to data isn’t really the key point. What’s at stake here is Uber’s ability to operate without oversight and without regard for citizens in cities everywhere.
If Uber continues being seen as easy political prey, regulators will pounce and the company will complain, protest, bluster and then give in. That means control over city streets and airspace shifts back to the government for the first time in nearly a decade. It means micromobility startups no longer control their own destiny. And it means the era of not only ride- and scooter-sharing, but data- and power-sharing too is upon us.