Uber’s wave of legal troubles reflect woes in company’s culture
Ride-sharing titan Uber has been caught under fire lately for allegations of sexual harassment within the company and idea theft. Immediately following President Donald Trump’s refugee ban from seven Muslim-majority nations, many Uber users also deleted their accounts because it seemed like it encouraged drivers to try to make a profit out of the tense situation.
Since its launch, Uber has expanded to over 60 countries worldwide. In the United States, Uber employs over 160,000 drivers and data analytics show that more people rely on Uber for transportation rather than traditional yellow taxi cabs.
Recently, Waymo of Alphabet Inc., the self-driving car project under Google, sued Uber after discovering an email thread that contained carbon copies of Uber’s lidar circuit board, which bore remarkably similar attributes to the Waymo model. The plans were intended to be used to propel the self-driving car initiative.
On Feb. 23, Waymo filed a lawsuit against Uber, claiming that a former employee who now works for Otto stole the plans and distributed them to his network of colleagues. Otto is a subsidiary of Uber that now specializes in hardware and software for autonomous vehicles. Waymo’s staff had the plans under wraps for seven years and Otto’s staff released the plans just nine months ago.
Waymo blames Anthony Levandowski, former manager at the company, for stealing the files. The lawsuit says he stole over 14,000 top secret files. A colleague says that Levandowski disclosed plans to share them with and replicate them for a competitor. Levandowski left Waymo in January 2016 and went on to form Otto a few months after. Uber bought Otto in August for $680 million.
Prior to the release of the secret plans, Alphabet aimed to manufacture self-driving cars using Google technology. Alphabet and Uber have a long-standing rivalry that “reflects an escalating talent war in the burgeoning autonomous-driving arena as tech and auto companies alike compete for skilled engineers,” Bloomberg Technology says.
An Otto staff member accidentally forwarded the email thread in which the plans were contained to a Waymo engineer. Because the plans went through and Uber started to bank on the booming self-driving car industry, Otto benefitted with a collective sum of $500 million in profit.
Claims of sexual harassment also made their way up to Uber’s Chief Executive Officer Travis Kalanick who requested that they get investigated promptly.
Susan Fowler, a former engineer for Uber, accused her supervisor of having sexually harassed her. She reported the situation to the human resources department, but employees wrote her claim off in favor of her supervisor. Following these interactions, Fowler chose to leave the institution.
Fowler took to her own personal blog to disclose the incident. “When I reported the situation, I was told by both HR and upper management that even though this was clearly sexual harassment and he was propositioning me, it was this man’s first offense, and that they wouldn’t feel comfortable giving him anything other than a warning and a stern talking-to,” Fowler writes in the post. “Upper management told me that he ‘was a high performer’ (i.e. had stellar performance reviews from his superiors) and they wouldn’t feel comfortable punishing him for what was probably just an innocent mistake on his part.”
Fowler reports in the post that she had been part of email threads that boasted inherently sexist content. A quarter of the engineers at Uber, she writes, were female when she joined the company. On her last day, only 3 percent of engineers employed were women.
When the post was published and circulated around the internet, Kalanick told The New York Times that he had only heard of the incident at that moment. After having learned of the incident, he pushed Liane Hornsey, Uber’s new chief of human resources, to conduct an investigation.
These allegations come at a time when Uber has seen partial reputation damage. Uber lost many users nationwide when drivers started to linger around airports to make extra profits during the detainment. Hundreds of thousands of people deleted their Uber accounts and the corresponding app from their phone to demonstrate their lack of support in light of the events.
Uber’s CEO also agreed to join Trump’s economic advisory council around the same time Uber drivers took advantage of the situation at local airports. Kalanick stepped down from the president’s business advisory council when customers criticized his affiliation with Trump, according to Bloomberg Technology.