Uber is built on trust. Now it needs to maintain it

Illustration: Susan MacDonald

Illustration by Susan MacDonald

Uber isn’t in the taxi business. It’s not even in the tech business. It’s in the “trust” business. That is, it’s in the business of building trust between strangers. And if it can’t figure out how to do that, it will fail.

Uber’s “UberX” program hit a horrifying bump in the road this week, as one of its drivers in Delhi allegedly raped a female passenger. The incident earned the company a complete ban throughout the Delhi region, and is sure to send shockwaves through a much broader global community of users and potential users of UberX.

For all its success, Uber has had plenty of troubles. It’s been accused of anti-competitive behaviours. It’s been accused of privacy violations. Some of these problems can be overcome through smarter use of technology — and after all, that’s what Uber is supposed to be good at. But it’s important to see that the key to Uber’s success isn’t its mobile app. It’s the ability to get strangers to trust each other. If Uber wants to keep its recent $40 billion valuation, it’s going to have to figure that out.

Because commerce — all commerce — relies upon trust.

When I hop into a taxi, I’m not just getting a ride to a destination. I’m getting an exchange of trust. Think about it: I’m getting into a car with a stranger. But the branding of the cab company, plus the municipal licensing, give me some assurance that a) I’m going to get where I ask to go; b) I’ll arrive there alive; and c) I’ll be given the correct change even if I fail to count it. Uber got big by leveraging that pre-existing trust that most of us have in taxis.

The key question, then, is whether Uber will be able to sustain that trust.

I should add that it’s not just about customers. Trust has to be built and maintained with drivers, too. I spoke to one Uber driver recently who said that some drivers have left Uber because of how the company has treated them. He suggested such drivers feel that in introducing UberX, the company has effectively turned its back on the professional drivers that built the brand. Maybe the company doesn’t care about the professional drivers — maybe its long game lies with UberX. But if informed and experienced professional drivers don’t trust Uber, it’s hard to see how amateurs are going to do so.

So, Uber needs two things in order to build and maintain trust.

First, it needs to make smarter use of the technology at its fingertips. Some of that is already in place — simple, trustworthy financial transactions are clearly a key component of the company’s success to date. But it also needs to assure users that, for example, the company can be trusted with the vast amounts of data it gathers on their travel behaviour. Finally, the company needs not just the technical infrastructure of trust, it needs to engage in the behaviour that will signal to users that the company is here to stay, here to be trusted, here to be a reliable and trustworthy service provider for the long run.

5 comments so far

  1. kristymarielopez on

    I understand that they need to make better use of the technology they have at their fingertips, but how exactly do they create a sense of trust between complete strangers where one has allegedly raped a customer? That, for me, is a pretty big issue. Once a company has been scarred by something like this, it’s pretty difficult to come back and earn the trust of customers again.

    • Chris MacDonald on


      Good question. I think it will take some imagination on their part. I would suspect they’ll need to do better screening (which will be next to impossible for UberX). That challenge is for them to tackle.

      For what it’s worth, I think the rape that occurred is an extreme outlier…a freak occurrence, the happening of which may actually have been made LESS likely by Uber. Think about it: Uber knows every time a driver picks up a customer. Both driver and customer know that Big Brother is watching, so that a crime is very unlikely to go unpunished. I’m more likely to trust Uber (professional) drivers not to engage in serious criminal behaviour (vis-a-vis customers) than I am to trust regular taxi drivers.


      • Kristy M. Lopez on

        You have some good points about trusting the Uber (professional) drivers vs. taxi drivers. I really don’t use taxis unless I’m traveling. You are correct that this is their issue to resolve and find creative ways to overcome their challenges. With the technology we have today that shouldn’t be too difficult.

  2. Roger Terry on

    And will Uber pay taxes in the countries in which it is operating, like Amazon, and Starbucks and Apple?

  3. […] also: Uber is built on trust. Now it needs to maintain it and “We Can’t Trust Uber” (NY […]

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