For much of the past year, Uber has been caught up in increasing waves of scandal. Earlier this week, the backlash against Uber finally came to a head for the ride-hailing company.
CEO Travis Kalanick announced Tuesday he plans to take an indefinite leave of absence from the company, saying in an internal email he needed “to work on myself” and “focus on building out a world-class leadership team.” Last month, Kalanick’s mother died in a boating accident that also sent his father to the hospital.
For the moment, Kalanick leaves behind a company that is reeling from a string of public embarrassments and now is without its central driver. But how did Uber get to this point?
From UberCab to Uber
Uber originally launched in 2009 as UberCab by StumbleUpon founder Garrett Camp and Kalanick. While the company gradually developed in its early years, it began seeing massive jumps in investment starting in late 2011. As of early 2014, Uber had raised around $1.6 billion in funding.
During this early push for growth, Kalanick and Uber weren’t afraid of being publicly aggressive or facing potential legal action in the name of expansion. In a GQ profile from early 2014, Kalanick quipped about Uber as “Boob-er” in response to a question about whether Uber’s success made it easier for him to meet women.
This attitude also carried over to how Uber tackled the competition. In mid-2014, Uber was accused of having employees book and cancel rides from Lyft, its primary competitor, to disrupt its drivers.
Early 2017: Current Uber Backlash Begins
Uber spent much of 2015 and 2016 both finding new cities to expand into and facing legal or political backlash over issues like how it classifies employees as contractors. But while the company had generally been able to let many of its past legal disputes blow by, early embarrassments in 2017 would prove to be much more damaging.
During protests over President Donald Trump’s executive order on banning immigration from several majority-Muslim countries, Uber’s response to striking taxi drivers spurred the #DeleteUber campaign in January. In February, former Uber engineer Susan Fowler wrote an extensive post with allegations of persistent sexual harassment at the company and poor response from management. The post, which detailed instances of Fowler’s boss soliciting her for sex and human resources officials ignoring calls for discipline, would spur Kalanick to call for an investigation into the allegations from outside law firm Covington & Burling.
Public Focus into Uber Intensifies
As Uber’s missteps become increasingly public, additional attention turned to the company’s corporate philosophy and internal turmoil. Some of the major turning points for Uber include the following events:
March: Details on the company’s secret Greyball project are publicly revealed. The program allowed Uber to avoid being detected by local authorities in cities in which it is not allowed to operate. Later that month, Uber president Jeff Jones announced his resignation after a brief six-month stint. In a statement to Recode, Jones said: “The beliefs and approach to leadership that have guided my career are inconsistent with what I saw and experienced at Uber.”
April: Uber is tied to scandals alleging the company both shortchanged drivers on fares and used an exploit through its “Hell” program to track and target Lyft drivers. But the biggest news would come from revelations in the New York Times of a 2015 meeting between Kalanick and Apple CEO Tim Cook.
Uber had previously used a small piece of code to track iPhones even after they were formatted and reset, which violated Apple’s policies. When Apple found out about Uber’s plan, the company threatened to take the service off the App Store unless the feature was removed.
May: The U.S. Department of Justice announced it would investigate Uber over its Greyball program. Alphabet’s Waymo lawsuit against Uber also begins to intensify.
The trade secrets suit focuses on former Google engineer Anthony Levandowski and both companies’ investments in self-driving car technology. Levandowski was initially brought on as a high-profile hire to help run Uber’s autonomous driving research but took documents Waymo alleges were used by Uber. Levandowski persistently refused to participate in the case, citing his Fifth Amendment rights, and Uber eventually terminated his employment.
June: Former executive Eric Alexander obtained the personal medical records of a customer who was raped in India by an Uber driver, Recode reported. At the time, Uber executives including Kalanick reportedly saw the documents and others suspected it was orchestrated by Ola, the company’s primary Indian competitor. Other smaller embarrassments include a leaked email from Kalanick during a 2013 retreat where he provided employees with advice if they wanted to have sex with other staffers.
Uber: What’s Next?
On June 11, Uber’s board met in a lengthy meeting to discuss the investigation into its workplace culture and Kalanick’s future with the company. Longtime Kalanick ally Emil Michael, who worked as Uber’s senior vice president of business, left the company earlier this week and Uber announced it will accept all the recommendations of the Covington & Burling investigation to improve its workplace culture.
In addition, secondary law firm Perkins Coie is still investigating 57 human services claims for its separate investigation, Bloomberg reported. As part of its post-investigation findings, Uber also fired more than 20 employees.