Uber made headlines earlier this year when it offloaded Jump, the shared bike and scooter unit that once appeared to be a critical piece of its transportation. Despite that move, Uber still sees micromobility as "really important" to the company, according to Uber Director of Policy, Cities and Transportation Shin-pei Tsay, who joined TechCrunch on the virtual stage of TC Sessions: Mobility 2020.
"It was really hard to let go of Jump, but micromobility is a business where on the ground operations are so important," Tsay said. "They're vital to the success of the operations, they're vital to the business being able to provide the service to as many people as possible. And scaling it was, is challenging for every micromobility operator. The current state of policies around micromobility is a very challenged environment. I would say where cities are really trying to get a handle on how best to manage operators and how best to manage the public right of way."
Even though Uber offloaded JUMP to Lime, Uber is still partnering with other micromobility operators through the world. Part of that, Tsay says, means Uber can offer micromobility in more cities.
Tsay also weighed in on Uber's stance on transit, autonomous vehicles and micromobility, as well as its role in Prop 22, the gig workers' ballot measure that is up for vote in November in California.
Where Uber stands on AVs
Uber has been working on autonomous vehicles for the last five years or so. Last month, The Information published a report saying Uber is still nowhere close to achieving its AV ambitions. But Tsay said autonomous vehicles are still on the road map for Uber.
"I think the point here is like, there's a transition, right?" Tsay said. "It has to be shared, it has to be electric and then we're going to get to autonomous. And that's still in the future of the business. But frankly, I think as a community of transportation folks, we're still sorting out what it means to have a multimodal shared transportation system. And then what does it mean to really invest in the electrification aspect."
Tsay pointed to how Uber recently committed to becoming a zero-emission platform by 2040. Part of that involves incentivizing drivers to transition to electric vehicles.
"So we want to increase access to transportation while we're driving down carbon," Tsay said. "So we felt it was really important to do that. And I think, ultimately, autonomous vehicles will have a role to play for high-volume routes, for improving safety. But I think at this stage in the game, it's like heads down, let's focus on getting it right. Let's focus on the cities that we have pilots in and let's just really get it right before, you know, making additional commitments."
Pushing Prop 22
Autonomous vehicles and Uber's role in commercializing the tech is a distant-term issue. Prop 22, which Uber is backing, could change the landscape, or more precisely protect the status quo in the near term.
Prop 22 aims to keep gig workers classified as independent contractors. The measure, if passed, would make drivers and delivery workers for said companies exempt from a new state law that classifies them as W-2 employees. If passed, app-based transportation and delivery workers would be entitled to things like minimum compensation and healthcare subsidies based on engaged driving time.
Uber, Lyft, Instacart and DoorDash have collectively contributed $184,008,361.46 to the Yes on 22 campaign. Those contributions have been monetary, non-monetary and have come in the form of loans. In September, the four companies each committed another $17.5 million to Yes on Prop 22 in monetary contributions.
Of all the measures on this November’s ballot, Yes on Prop 22 has received the most contributions, according to California’s Fair Political Practices Commission.
Tsay said Prop 22 is important to Uber because of what it has found from studies and surveys. In those cited surveys, drivers said they value flexibility above anything else.
"And I think that flexibility ends up being something that's worth protecting, but it isn't perfect, you know," Tsay said. "We should be supporting workers more than the existing system enables currently and so this is sort of a middle way of protecting that flexibility but also offering some benefits."
Uber also doesn't see a way to offer flexibility to drivers while also employing them.
"I think it'd be really challenging," Tsay said about providing flexibility to drivers as employees. "We would have to start to ensure that there's coverage to ensure that there's the necessary number of drivers to meet demand. That would be this forecasting that needs to happen. We would only be able to offer a certain number of jobs to meet that demand because people will be working in set amounts of time. I think there would be quite fewer work opportunities, especially the ones that people really have said that they like."
It's worth noting, however, that Uber's adamancy around keeping drivers classified as independent contractors also stems from the fact that it will be costly to reclassify drivers as employees. At one point, Uber threatened to leave California in response to a preliminary injunction that seeks to force both Uber and Lyft to reclassify their drivers as employees. In an August court hearing, Uber and Lyft maintained that an injunction would require them to restructure their businesses in such a material way that it would prevent them from being able to employ many drivers on either a full-time or part-time basis. Uber and Lyft’s argument, effectively, is that classifying drivers as employees would result in job loss.
In the event Prop 22 passes, we can likely expect Uber to pursue similar legislation in other states.
"If the principles are there then yeah, there's a possibility of it going to other states," Tsay said.