The Wild West of Ride Sharing
When profit and scale trump people and safety
What can go wrong when platforms don’t fully appreciate how bad actors can manipulate or leverage their technology for harm. And how ridesharing platforms have responsibility to build features to prioritize safety not just for passengers, but for drivers as well.
EDIT 5 Aug 2020: Thanks 🙏🏼 to the 6 generous souls who have donated $900 to help my friend get back on his feet. $1,100 more will make him completely whole for car repairs, lost income, medical bills and replacement tools (e.g., phone). You can contribute via Venmo.
He’s gotten back to work thanks to all your support!
The police tell me half a dozen Uber/Bolt drivers have recently been killed in this area. You can understand why I’m freaking out.
This is a message from a close friend. In the decade since leaving his country as an orphan, he has been unemployed, a security guard, barista, gardener, waiter, and events manager. His true ambitions are to become a musician. Despite challenge after challenge, he remains optimistic, honest, kind and disciplined.
However, as a foreign national without a college degree, he faces +50% youth unemployment in South Africa, difficulty landing a decent job, xenophobia and constant threat of violence. As I came to understand how these challenges manifested in his life, I resolved to do what I could to support him.
Of all the ideas we brainstormed, we determined that driving for Bolt/Uber would enable him to earn a better, more consistent living. So I invested in a car. He started driving for Bolt in October 2018. Though he’s had scrapes since, he’s extremely street smart and grown exponentially to understand the ins and outs of the city.
It’s 8:20pm on a Friday night. I’m settling into bed with my partner and a glass of wine when I get a call.
CarTrack (a South African company that runs ‘tracking device as a service’ for vehicles) tells me that the car my friend drives is having device issues in El Dorado Park near Johannesburg. I immediately call him. No response. I call CarTrack back so they can set the wheels in motion to investigate. While waiting, I begin calling everyone who knows my friend.
At 9:20pm, I get a call that sends shivers down my spine.
CarTrack found the car. Driver side window and headlights smashed. No driver. No sign of struggle or blood. There’s a bullet hole (!!!) . . . but it’s an old one because there’s rust. They tell me to head to my nearest police station to open a case.
As I get ready, it’s only then that I see three horrifying lines on Instagram:
I need your help
I was shot and the car was hijacked
After I call CarTrack to share this disturbing message, my mind is racing. Is my friend alive?!?! I have horrific images of him on the side of the road, in the dark, in the cold, all alone, bleeding out in a ditch.
I get to the nearest police station and try to tell them I need to file a case. They’ve barricaded the entrance with a large desk because (they tell me) someone just collapsed and has been diagnosed with COVID.
As I’m trying to contain my rage and despair, I get a call from a number I don’t recognize. It’s 9:39pm.
It’s my friend’s girlfriend, crying. She asks me if I’ve heard from him? That he’s been shot and trying to get to the police station.
Then another call comes in at 9:43pm.
They are calling from a police station in the area where the car was found. They tell me my friend is there filing a case. I ask them if he is ok?! He was shot! They tell me he’s ok, and that I cannot talk to him because he’s filing the case. And that I need to come immediately.
As fast as I can, I drive over, speeding along in ominous, unfamiliar terrain with street and traffic lights out. After what feels like an eternity, I get to the police station, park and walk in.
There he is, bent over the police desk with a bandage on his right arm, which is hanging almost limp by his side.
I’m utterly relieved and grateful to see my friend in the flesh, to see that — by some miracle and his own unbelievable wits as I learn later — he is alive.
The police tell us so too, because they know half a dozen other Uber/Bolt drivers who’ve been killed in this area.
As I drive him home, he tells me what happened. He dropped off a client and got another request near El Dorado Park. When he arrived, he found the client with a gang of men. As he tried to drive away, one stepped in front of the car and smashed the windshield.
They shot him in the arm twice. That’s when he knew that they had absolutely no qualms about killing him. They started beating the back of his head with an axe. He begged, he told them about his daughter, he pleaded with them to take everything but leave him alive.
When they asked if there was a tracker, he said that the owner only bought the car for him 2 weeks ago, and he didn’t know. He did his best to help us recover the car even while struggling for his own life — a true testament to his strength of character.
After taking his phone, watch, wallet, money, cards, shoes, and the keys to the car, they told him to run while firing bullets. He ran as fast as he could and dove behind a bush. While waiting out death seekers passing by, he prayed to God that none would hit him. He didn’t know if he would be alive to see his daughter again, to see me again. But (thank God) no other bullets found him, and when he felt safe enough to move, he got up to contact the police, me, CarTrack, and emergency medical services.
This is the latest striking example of a platform misunderstanding how bad actors can use their platforms for harm.
Ridesharing platforms like Uber and Bolt (formerly Taxify) have spent millions on local contextualizing and optimizing of their pricing, matching, routing and driver supply & demand algorithms. They have features that allow riders to call for emergency help and for riders to rate drivers.
But what happens when riders with ulterior motives seek to use the system for their own ends because they know that cars are a high value asset and ridesharing apps are the perfect way to target them?
It strikes me that because central headquarters are far removed from the ground, leaders of these companies lack understanding of the real world context of the lived realities of many of their drivers.
I have a bold suggestion: add features to enable drivers to make safe choices. For example, add a feature that alerts drivers when entering dangerous hotspots or picking up potentially fraudulent customers. On the backend, Bolt actually assigns fraud scores to customers, which we discovered when they sent the details of the rider who shot my friend! What if they shared the client’s fraud score or date of joining the platform with the driver?
I implore them to make the right choice, to treat their drivers like people rather than pixels to be optimized.
For with the great power of scale comes the great responsibility of safety.
To close, I’d like to make a special appeal on behalf of my friend. If you’d like to make a contribution to help him get back on his feet: you can Venmo me @davidthefu.
Today is July, 8, 2020.
It’s been 12 days since the incident.
We were FINALLY able to recover the vehicle from the pound. We found the battery, spare tire, and keys removed. Driver-side window smashed. Front bumper broken. Front wheel and axel misaligned.
The cost of repairs alone are currently estimated at $1,000, not to mention medical expenses, lost income, and replacement for everything stolen (especially his phone).
We’ve included pictures from the car that we took today and a full cost breakdown below detailing the estimated costs (to-date).