Uber is overhauling its disaster response procedures so it doesn’t get caught flat-footed during major events like a hurricane or terrorist attack. In the past, Uber’s response to disasters was largely piecemeal, relying on local teams to make all the decisions about capping surge pricing or suspending service. Now, the ride-hail company’s new Global Security Center, based outside of Washington, DC, will hand down all decisions to those regional teams, with the hopes of creating a more efficient, consistent process during disasters.
This is a direct outgrowth of Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi’s overarching mission to rehabilitate the company’s reputation on safety. In recent months, he’s tackled issues such as rider and driver safety, sharing trip data with local authorities, and data security. And now, Khosrowshahi is trying to create a centralized process for responding to events outside of Uber’s control.
In 2014, Uber agreed to cap surge pricing during natural disasters or local emergencies, but that policy has been applied unevenly in the years since. Uber was criticized for failing to suspend surge pricing during a terrorist bombing in New York City in 2016, and it was dogged by false claims of price gouging in the aftermath of the 2015 terrorist attack in Paris. Its decision to lift surge pricing but continue to provide service during a taxi driver strike at JFK Airport in 2017 resulted in some of the harshest criticism to date. (Remember #DeleteUber?)
Now, all decisions — whether to cap surge pricing, suspend service, or donate to disaster relief efforts — will be made by Uber’s staff of emergency response personnel at the Global Security Center. It was there that the company first began to track Hurricane Florence, for example, a week before the storm made landfall.
“We definitely monitor storm systems that don’t make landfall,” said Carla Gray, Uber’s global head of physical security. “We’re looking at a lot of different criteria. What is the information we’re getting from the local authorities? Do we think it’s dangerous to anyone in proximity? How confident do we feel about the quality of the information? So there’s a lot of dynamics that we’re considering.”
Just last week, Uber implemented pricing caps in “probably over 20 incidents,” Gray said, from a major fire in Calcutta, India, to a report of an active shooter in Maryland, to a plane crash in Texas. The Global Security Center monitored each of those events in real time, making decisions about how to control the fare algorithm that is normally dictated by demand. In situations where unintended charges might have occurred during an emergency, Uber will review those incidents and refund them. Customers are encouraged to report issues of overcharging through the app.
“The goal is we’re consistent and reliable in our response,” Gray said. “Helping people understand what our approach and philosophy is here is the important message to get out, so people understand we are paying attention and are doing our best to respond quickly.”
It’s also a sign of Uber’s rapid growth into a global transportation giant. Much like major airlines and financial institutions, Uber found that it needed a central hub for security operations. But Gray insists that Uber’s team is unique. “But I’m not sure that they have teams with our diverse set of backgrounds that are making real-time impact of marketplaces like our teams have been,” she said.