Uber “wasn’t ready” for a public emergency like Hurricane Sandy, Ryan Graves, the company’s head of global operations, admitted in a public interview in San Francisco today, but otherwise did little to backpedal from his company’s brash approach to pricing and regulation.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, prices for Uber’s services — which allow users to electronically hail cabs or reserve private cars — skyrocketed. The situation, which Graves and others have said was driven by supply and demand, brought public outrage, partly because Uber has been steadfastly unapologetic about its high prices.
The company subsequently opted to comp riders the difference between regular prices and so-called surge prices, paying the drivers the higher fare out of pocket. Graves said the payout came to more than $100,000 before the company returned to its standard pricing regime.
“In order to deliver as many rides as possible, we’ve said before that we have to use price,” Graves said, adding that the higher fares freed up more cabs and limos.
Still, Graves admitted, as a young company, Uber was not ready for “one of these sort of travesty situations.”
When it came to the company’s seemingly contemptuous regard for taxi and limo service regulators, which some say has limited its ability to move past their initial skepticism about the app, Graves also made few concessions. Asked what advice he would give other startups looking to do business in highly regulated areas, he said, “I would encourage them to look at those as opportunities.”
The company’s battles with regulators in cities across the country, including in San Francisco, is simply part of its business, he said. “I view it as a conversation that begins at some point and will probably continue on for a long time,” he said.
“We won’t really even launch in a city unless we believe we’re right by the letter of the law,” Graves said.
The company now has a lobbying budget, but Graves would only say that it was “not that much.”
Given an opportunity to speak to the alleged elitism of the company’s model, which provides an expensive service only to those who have smartphones, Graves seemed to miss the point of the question altogether.
“How many people don’t have smart phones?” he wondered aloud. (Answer: 55 percent of Americans.)
Uber has created thousands of jobs for taxi and limo drivers, Graves said, but later indicated that the app’s advantages over competitors such as SideCar and Lyft included the lack of social expectation that riders will talk to drivers.
Unafraid to weigh in to one other toxic controversy, Graves said Uber is advising its drivers with iPhones not to update to iOS 5 so they can continue to use Google maps.