Uber, the fast-growing ride-sharing service based in San Francisco, has a reputation for not caring much about its reputation, glibly dismissing protests by cab drivers, scrutiny from regulators and complaints from customers as its annual revenues have soared to over $200 million. But Uber’s cavalier attitude towards critics may now be getting the company in trouble with its own drivers, dozens of whom protested outside Uber’s corporate headquarters this week after CEO Travis Kalanick made public comments in which he mused about replacing human drivers with robots: The reason Uber could be expensive is because you're not just paying for the car—you're paying for the other dude in the car. When there's no other dude in the car, the cost of taking an Uber anywhere becomes cheaper than owning a vehicle. So the magic there is, you basically bring the cost below the cost of ownership for everybody, and then car ownership goes away. This isn’t the first time Uber has had trouble with “the other dude in the car.” In May, nearly 100 drivers protested the high commission rates Uber collects, claiming that Uber’s pursuit of higher profit margins leaves many drivers working for less than minimum wage. And in April, nearly 250 drivers in Seattle signed “Show of Interest” cards distributed by Teamsters Local 117, announcing their intention to form a union or join the Teamsters-affiliated taxi drivers’ union. These organizing efforts pose a serious threat to Uber’s bottom line: Critics argue that the company has based much of its success on undercutting unionized and regulated taxi services in major American cities. If its drivers demand higher wages, that model could be put in jeopardy.
Ethan Corey is a writer and researcher based in New York. His work has appeared in The Nation, Rolling Stone and MEL magazine.