On Friday night, a group of twentysomethings took an Uber ride to a party in Houston. Something about the man driving the car seemed off from the beginning.
"The driver was a bit odd," said Stephanie, one of the passengers, in an email. She asked that we not publish her last name for fear of harassment. "He completely missed our exit on the highway, was speeding. We finally told him to slow down when he was going over 60 mph on a road with a posted limit of 40 mph."
Things got worse.
"When we arrived at our destination, he told us to 'get out of his fucking car,' calling us 'sluts,' 'bitches' and I was a 'nigger,'" Stephanie said. "I wish I could say that we did something to provoke him, but that's really what happened."
Stephanie complained to Uber that night. And though the company responded quickly—she had a reply by Sunday morning—the message she received was puzzling. Uber didn't seem to understand the seriousness of what had happened. "Our investigation is complete and the situation is closed," an Uber employee wrote, according to a screenshot of an email Stephanie provided. "Please remember when riding in an Uber you need to make sure you do not have any alcoholic beverages open as the driver can be cited for a DUI."
But Stephanie and her friends didn't have open containers in the car, she said. ("We had an unopened bottle of wine with us as a gift to the host," she said.) And Uber's response didn't reassure her that the driver was being held accountable, Stephanie said. After she started tweeting at journalists about what had happened, she said the company apologized and credited her account for the ride. But she still didn't know what happened to the driver. "To my question of whether he could guarantee that this racist driver would not be the one to pick me up the next time I called an Uber, [the Uber representative] responded that he could not," Stephanie said. "Apparently, I do not have the right to know if the person entrusted with my safety would be fired for endangering me and calling me racial and sexist slurs."
As it turned out, Uber did ban the driver from using its platform, a spokeswoman confirmed. That decision is irreversible. In the 48 hours after her ride, Stephanie's complaint worked its way up the chain of command—a complaint of this nature is considered "critical," said Jennifer Mullin, an Uber spokeswoman. Uber acknowledged it mishandled its initial response to Stephanie's complaint. And the incident highlights how the company draws on its trove of user and driver data to decide how to proceed when a driver and a passenger have a dispute.
Stephanie and the driver gave conflicting accounts of what happened. Stephanie said she and her friends weren't drinking, and that the driver harassed them. The driver told Uber that his passengers were drinking, and that he never called them names, according to Uber. (Uber wouldn't provide the name of the man.) But Uber reviewed both Stephanie's and the driver's past ratings. (Uber drivers and riders have the opportunity to rate one another on a five-point scale after each ride.) Uber also checked Stephanie's account of the ride—like the fact that the driver missed an exit—against GPS records.
"The team that works on this is trained to try to find out what the truth is," Mullin told me. "We can compare it against data from the trip... and then try to come up with the best conclusion of what the outcome should be. In this case, the driver was deactivated from the platform based on the information we got... He shouldn't be driving on the platform because he isn't treating riders with enough respect and courtesy."
Riders can be banned from Uber, too. The driver who lost access to the platform in this case is prohibited from using the service as a passenger, too. (It's not clear how Uber prevents someone who has been banned from signing up for the platform under a different name.) "We collect feedback on drivers and we also collect feedback on riders," Mullin said. "It's interesting because the team here will spend a lot of time looking at that if you have a he-said she-said type situation... it doesn't make the full decision for you but it's a key piece of information."
The situation also underscores how Uber sees both drivers and passengers as its clients. Drivers aren't employees, but customers.
Stephanie said she's "utterly relieved" to know the driver was banned from Uber, but she still wonders about the extent to which the company's eventual response came from her vocal complaints. ("First let me apologize for how poorly this situation was handled," an Uber employee wrote to Stephanie, according to emails provided by Stephanie. "To have a scary, negative ride happen and then to have blame cast on you is unacceptable. This is not up to Uber standards, and we are currently handling the situation internally.")
"I am a 23-year-old woman with similarly aged friends, so I am certain I will be in an Uber soon," Stephanie told me. "It's just too ubiquitous for me to avoid it."