Uber hit the brakes on Uber-for-rental cars


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Hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving. Quartz’s tech team let Alexa cook the turkey, and it came out great.

Brake lights.

Uber shut down its rental-car service for riders on Nov. 20, after a little more than six months of operation in San Francisco, I reported this morning.

The program was a partnership with Getaround, a startup that offers short-term rentals of privately owned vehicles. Uber announced it with a good bit of media fanfare in April, at an event focused on how the company was broadening beyond its core on-demand rides.

Uber announced the Uber Rent shut down in an email to San Francisco users on Nov. 19. “We know you’ve relied on Uber Rent powered by Getaround, and apologize for the inconvenience this may cause you,” it said in the email. Uber said it would honor outstanding rental arrangements, and offered a coupon for $30 off a rental booked through the Getaround app before the end of the year.

It’s unclear why Uber Rent hit the brakes, and both Uber and Getaround declined to get into specifics of the decision. “We want to think through the best way to offer Uber customers access to rentals in the Uber app,” Kaitlin Durkosh, an Uber spokeswoman, offered in an email.

Uber only provided a booking portal and Getaround handled the actual rental, so it’s hard to imagine the program sucking a lot of time and resources away from Uber. I suppose one possibility is that Uber Rent wasn’t being used much, and Uber didn’t want it cluttering up the app. Another is that Uber thought Uber Rent was distracting from other more promising products, like scooters and e-bikes.

Whatever the reason, the decision to shutter Uber Rent came shortly after scooter company Lime said it would test a car-rental service in Seattle (paywall) in the coming months.

Uber and Getaround will continue to operate a separate program that lets Uber drivers rent Getaround cars for $5 an hour in four California cities, with an expansion to two East Coast cities, one of which is likely Washington DC, planned for this month.

Tree trouble.

Uber’s self-driving cars had some trouble with trees, according to Business Insider:

For weeks on end, during a regular "triage" meeting where issues were prioritized by vice president of software Jon Thomason, tree branches kept coming up, one former engineer told us. Tree branches create shadows in the road that the car sometimes thought were physical obstacles, multiple people told us.

Uber's software "would classify them as objects that are actually moving, and the cars would do something stupid, like stop or call for remote assistance," one engineer explained. "Or the software might crash and get out of autonomy mode. This was a common issue that we were trying to fix."

Per BI, Thomason declared at one meeting, “This is unacceptable! We are above this! We shouldn't be getting stuck on tree branches, so go figure it out.”

An Uber spokesperson denied to BI that the company’s driverless cars stop for tree-branch shadows. But the arboreal problems didn’t end there:

another employee also said that piles of leaves could confuse the car. A third employee told us of other efforts to teach the car to recognize foliage.

There is a certain poetic elegance in a driverless car being foiled by tree shadows and leaf piles. Surely Emerson would have had something to say about that.

Physical tolls.

If you ordered something from Amazon on Cyber Monday, consider spending some time with this Oct. 31 interview with a US Postal worker, who feels like she works more for Amazon than for the actual US Postal Service:

I feel like I work for Amazon because the physical toll that the job takes on my body is mostly related to packages, and my lack of time off is mostly due to Amazon because of the Amazon Sundays. This is not really answering the question, but I feel like my life depends on Amazon. I imagine that the Postal Service treats us like this because they’re answering the demands of Amazon. Like, “If we upset Amazon, they’ll pull out, and we need their help.” I’ve heard that from my supervisors.

For more on the human cost of online delivery, check out yesterday’s The Daily podcast.

Hindsight is 20/20.

Remember Hubble, the contact lens startup with questionable prescription verification processes? I wrote about them last December, after Hubble filled an order for contact lenses I placed with a fake prescription from a made-up doctor.

A year later, Hubble is very much still in business, and its praises being sung by none other than Harvard Business School. Here is a case study on Hubble by Jill Avery and Ayelet Israeli, lecturer and assistant professor of business administration at HBS.

The case study, which is available for purchase for $8.95, was “reviewed and approved before publication by a company designate.” That might explain the roundly flattering tone of the case, which opens with a scene of Hubble’s co-founders negotiating their series A funding, and celebrating their success to date (“three standard deviations above my expectations,” according to Hubble co-founder Ben Cogan).

The case study notes that some optometrists raised concerns about Hubble’s lens quality, and that the American Optometrist Association called for an investigation after “reports emerged in the press of customers ordering Hubble lenses without a valid prescription and from fabricated physicians.”

According to Harvard’s synopsis, “Cogan and [co-founder Jesse] Horwitz did not take these allegations lightly. They worked to improve their already robust prescription verification processes and retrained optometrist-facing representatives in their dedicated call center.”

For reference, those “already robust” verification processes involved placing a garbled robocall to the prescribing eye doctor—you can hear audio of one in my story for Quartz. In my case, Hubble found the closest match for the fake doctor I inputted and called that person instead of flagging the transaction for possible issues. Robust indeed.

There are plenty of problems with Harvard case studies, but I am interested in the role these cases play in favorably rewriting founder and startup mythology. “So far, everything has gone smoothly, but I’m sure there are pitfalls waiting for us,” Horwitz is quoted as saying on the very first page.

This is obviously untrue. By August 2018, the date the case was published, Hubble had been reported to the Federal Trade Commission by the American Optometrist Association and had its shoddy prescription verification processes detailed in my article. The FTC doesn’t comment on specific companies it may or may not be investigating, but Hubble was certainly on its radar.

These would seem like important details, and yet Harvard Business School glossed over them in favor of Hubble’s “aggressive digital marketing-fueled customer acquisition strategy.” What does this teach the students of HBS, some of whom will certainly start companies of their own while at school or shortly after? That the rules of regulation can be bent if your digital marketing campaign is slick enough? That company missteps can be erased and a rosier narrative written if a nice Harvard professor comes along to bail you out?

This time last year.

Uber paid off hackers, WeWork buys Meetup, Expensify's SmartScan "garbage"

Other stuff.

Airbnb hires Amazon’s Dave Stephenson as chief financial officer. Waymo adds chief safety officer. Dara Khosrowshahi “really happy” at Uber. Uber growth slowed and losses widened in latest quarter. Uber fined $1.2 million by British and Dutch regulators for 2016 data breach. Uber and Lyft add bikes in Seattle. Asheville to ban electric scooters. Uber cracked classic ’80s video games using AI. Airbnb arrives in rural China. Airbnb sued for delisting settlements in the West Bank. France revolts against Google. Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg tainted by crisis. Amazon workers protest in Europe on Black Friday. Westport Man Goes to Court Over Hash Brown Dispute. The BLS Strikes Back. “Today’s myth of the omnipotent consumer-entrepreneur is dead.” What happens to electric scooters in the snow?

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