THE UBER STORY
SEAN NICHOLLS, REPORTER: In 2009, an idea was born on the streets of San Francisco that changed how millions of people travel. The ride share giant Uber burst onto the scene.
DOUG O'CONNOR, FORMER UBER DRIVER: In the early days of Uber, it was one of the coolest ... it was the place to be.
SEAN NICHOLLS: Today it's one of the world's most recognisable brands ... but for Uber it's been far from a smooth ride. A series of scandals has severely damaged its reputation and despite its popularity, it's still losing billions of dollars.
HUBERT HORAN, TRANSPORTATION ANALYST It's massively unprofitable, it has no competitive advantage, uh, and it has no signs that it can expand profitably anywhere else. To turn around four, four and half billion dollars of losses into steady growing profits would be one of the greatest corporate turnarounds of an operating company in history.
SEAN NICHOLLS: Tonight on Four Corners, we investigate Uber's ruthless rise to dominate the global ridesharing business ... and why the disruptive technology giant is facing an uncertain future.
SEAN NICHOLLS: This is where Uber controls its vast global empire across 65 countries. At Uber's headquarters in downtown San Francisco, trip data floods in from 3 million drivers hired via Uber's smartphone app. The 15 million trips taken each day around the world are carefully mapped.
SHAN HE, DATA VISUALISATION ENGINEER, UBER: At Uber we have a lot of location-based data ... what that means is every single trip we're collecting data where people go and how the trip actually happens. On a greater ... a larger scale, like a city level we also want to understand different parts of the city, how the trip is happening. So we need a tool that can show this large scale of data on the map.
SEAN NICHOLLS: It's all part of Uber's ambition to monopolise - and monetise - the way we travel.
MANIK GUPTA, VICE-PRESIDENT, AND UBER'S CHIEF PRODUCT OFFICER: We want to be the one stop transportation platform for the world. So you as a user come to Uber, you say you want to go from point A to point B and we'll provide you all kinds of options that allow the user to choose the right price point and convenience for themselves and be on their way.
SEAN NICHOLLS: To 'Uber' is embedded in the language of a new generation. If one person is responsible, it's this man ...
TRAVIS KALANICK, UBER'S CEO, 2010-17: Wow this is awesome, its full. Good to meet all of you. My name is Travis Kalanick cofounder CEO of Uber.
SEAN NICHOLLS: Travis Kalanick was just 32 and had already made millions from a technology startup when he co-founded Uber.
TRAVIS KALANICK: The bottom line is that in order to be in this business, in order to be this disruptive to what's going on, you have to have ... you have to be willing to fight.
SEAN NICHOLLS: Kalanick began Uber in 2009 as a way to order a hire car using a smartphone.
MAN: The Uber system allows riders to request drivers at any time.
SEAN NICHOLLS, REPORTER: ...before coming up with UberX - a way to hire drivers in their private cars.
MIKE ISAAC, NEW YORK TIMES TECHNOLOGY REPORTER: People always thought of Travis as not um, your typical entrepreneur. He didn't really care about being liked. He um, was commonly known as like just a jerk. And uh, didn't really care if the press liked him. And I think folks kind of respected that in a little way, a little bit. Um, because he, his whole, his whole journey was to just buck against regulation and, and against these entrenched taxi interests, and against uh, regulators who didn't want him to succeed.
SEAN NICHOLLS, REPORTER: The launch of UberX sparked furious protests from taxi drivers around the world. In most places transport regulators declared it an illegal taxi service. In country after country, Kalanick defied the authorities trying to shut him down.
BLAIR DAVIES CEO AUSTRALIAN TAXI INDUSTRY ASSOCIATION: He confronted the regulators and said, "If you just send me cease and desist notices, I'm just going to screw them up, throw them in the bin. They mean nothing to me. The only thing that matters is if you start fining drivers and impounding vehicles. If you don't get serious, then we'll just treat your regulations as not being there."
SARAH KAINE, CENTRE FOR BUSINESS AND SOCIAL INNOVATION, UTS: I've heard it described as kind of a modern wild west approach, where if there's a market there to be taken, we're just going to take it. Just try and stop us. We're riding in with our sheriffs, and we're gonna take this town. I kind of think of it more as the digital equivalent of that greed is good mentality. The Gordon Gekko mentality, but in a digital space. Which is, "We will do this. We can do this, and no one's going to stop us."
SEAN NICHOLLS: In its quest for dominance, Uber developed a suite of software tools and covert techniques to fight against regulators and adversaries. In San Francisco, Uber set up a global strategic nerve centre known as the Threat Operations division - or Threat Ops.
SEAN NICHOLLS: It was allegedly here in this nondescript San Francisco city building that Uber launched covert plans to eliminate its competitors and thwart its opponents. Its targets included taxis and other rivals and even government officials.
SEAN NICHOLLS: The alleged activities of the ThreatOps division were revealed in 2017 by former Uber Global Intelligence head Richard Jacobs.
VOICE: "Uber implemented a sophisticated strategy to destroy, conceal, cover up and falsify records or documents with the intent to impede or obstruct Government investigations ..."
MIKE ISAAC, NEW YORK TIMES TECHNOLOGY REPORTER. Rick Jacobs was an ex security employee at Uber who had worked there for a while. And he worked on, he essentially unveiled the existence of this entire threat ops team inside of Uber, that um, was pretty much made up of a bunch of ex-CIA, FBI type guys who would travel around the world, spending millions of dollars investigating uh, competitors. Investigating taxi companies. Uh, digging up dirt on folks. And just sort of spy type stuff that is kinda crazy to, to go on at a tech company.
SEAN NICHOLLS: One of Uber's covert tools was a piece of software designed to force its competitors out of business by stealing their drivers. It was codenamed 'Hell'.
BLAIR DAVIES CEO AUSTRALIAN TAXI INDUSTRY ASSOCIATION: There was a programme called Hell where Uber was keeping a sophisticated watch on its competitor Lyft over in the US to seek commercial advantage out of that, and it was argued in the reports, used for industrial sabotage.
MIKE ISAAC: Hell they used to track Lyft drivers and uh, recruit them over to work for Uber.
BLAIR DAVIES: Uber is a very significant, technological company, but some of its technology is not about providing better services to the community. It's about making better profits for Uber.
SEAN NICHOLLS: Uber was not only targeting its competitors... it also went after government authorities. It deployed another powerful software program dubbed 'Ripley' across its global offices that was used to remotely delete company data being sought during raids by government investigators.
MIKE ISAAC: Ripley was another fun one, which was their way of remotely destroying any of their data or, or hard drives in case they got raided by the Feds at some point. Or, or a competitor in another country.
SEAN NICHOLLS: In 2014 UberX launched in Australia ... now one of Uber's most successful markets.
SUSAN ANDERSON, UBER AUSTRALIA'S GENERAL MANAGER, 2018-PRESENT:
In Australia, we now have some of the most progressive ride-sharing laws globally. And that's a reflection of the fact that this was a service that customers wanted. Nearly 4 million Australians use Uber on a regular basis.
SEAN NICHOLLS: When UberX started in Australia, authorities declared it illegal. So Uber threw incentives at drivers to try to get them to sign up.
MARK ALIPRANDI, UBER DRIVER: They paid for everything: your criminal record check, your driver history check, your vehicle check was all paid for. So you walked out with a bonus; once you'd done 20 trips they gave you a $500 bonus, as 'thanks for coming and joining Uber'. So it was really enticing to get involved. We were known as the renegades. I was illegal, the customers were illegal, and we were getting together and we were beating the system.
SEAN NICHOLLS: Do you acknowledge that Uber was breaking the law in Australian states and territories?
SUSAN ANDERSON: No, we don't acknowledge that.
SEAN NICHOLLS: Why not?
SUSAN ANDERSON: At the point of which we launched here, ride sharing was a totally new service and this was something that didn't exist before and we were open with governments and regulators to understand the way in which we should operate.
SEAN NICHOLLS: One of Uber's first Australian drivers was Mark Aliprandi. He remembers how Uber thwarted Australian authorities who were trying to shut them down.
MARK ALIPRANDI, UBER DRIVER.
Uber had a unique system that when the inspectors signed up for Uber accounts to try and entrap us, they actually monitored them and cancelled their accounts. So they were kind of on the watch for all of that. They were kind of a step ahead of everybody.
SEAN NICHOLLS: Uber deployed spyware called Greyball to outwit regulators as it muscled its way into the Australian market.
MIKE ISAAC: GreyBall was a software tool essentially. A little piece of code that um, Uber could attach to other people's phone to um, essentially serve them a different version of the app. So if I were, if I you know, GreyBalled you, um, uh, it would mean that you could try calling for an Uber in the area, and you wouldn't be able to find one. Or no cars would be around, or they would show you like fake cars, or something like that. We broke the story. And then um the Department of Justice here started looking into the use of the tool. Um, uh, to see if it had indeed violated obstruction of justice laws. Um, and then a bunch of attorneys general in each of the cities uh, it had taken place uh, started filing investigations into it as well.
SEAN NICHOLLS: Now this was used uh, not just in the States. This was used in Australia as well, right?
MIKE ISAAC: Australia, the E.U. All across the E.U. And those are like highly regulate markets with really strong taxi uh, incumbents. Um, in Asia. I'm pretty sure in, in South Korea it was definitely used. Iit was across the world.
BLAIR DAVIES CEO AUSTRALIAN TAXI INDUSTRY ASSOCIATION.
They were deliberately setting about to enter a foreign country, Australia, and defeat Australian laws through their technology. They weren't looking to abide by Australian laws. They were looking to defeat Australian laws and law enforcement officers going about their duty.
PETER WELLS: We knew the taxi industry and hire car industry backwards.
SEAN NICHOLLS: Peter Wells was on the other side ... as the official responsible transport regulation in NSW at the time.
PETER WELLS, FORMER DIRECTOR, SAFETY AND OF COMPLIANCE, NSW ROADS & MARITIME SERVICE: As Uber started, I was naturally worried about the basics. So making sure that the travelling public is safe, the economy and transport are efficient, and also thinking what's the impact on the taxi industry and what are the risks or safety issues of Uber commencing?
SEAN NICHOLLS: Peter Wells sent his officers undercover to hire rides with Uber drivers to monitor them. But Uber used Greyball to identify them and block them from hiring cars.
PETER WELLS: We would go to book a journey and there'd be no journey because, 'Hang on'. Clearly they knew who we were. They would track name, phone number, credit card or method of payment. Firstly that happened almost immediately. We thought that would take them a while, but almost straight away. We assumed they are very clever. They're technically savvy. They'll be able to work out all and EVERYTHING to do with technology, tracking, location. So we assumed that from day one.
SEAN NICHOLLS, REPORTER: The investigators took unprecedented steps to fight back, creating false identities for themselves with new credit cards and phone numbers.
PETER WELLS: We had to negotiate with telcos and banks to execute that quickly and in big number. And that's important to do for an act of public safety, but it was certainly an unusual thing for a regulator to have to do in that area. We had to have many credit cards. We had to have many SIM cards to be able to assume new identities as it were and be very careful not to do anything illegal ourselves. And we took legal opinions to make sure we're within the law, but so that we couldn't be traced by Uber. So we're essentially constantly a new customer X that they couldn't tell who was who.
SEAN NICHOLLS: What do you know about Greyball and its use in Australia?
SUSAN ANDERSON: That technology is no longer used. It was before my time and when we look at how we have evolved the way we operate, it's not something that we would do today.
BLAIR DAVIES: Greyball was a very effective way of stopping the governments from being able to enforce their laws and forcing Australian governments to change their laws.
SEAN NICHOLLS: They were outfoxed.
BLAIR DAVIES: Outfoxed and outplayed, yes.
SEAN NICHOLLS: Uber's tactics had a devastating effect on an early Australian competitor called GoCatch which developed a taxi hailing app. GoCatch chose not to launch Uber-style ride sharing until laws were changed to allow it.
DAVID HOLMES, FORMER GOCATCH CEO: Really the only difference in Uber versus the other ride sharing companies that had popped up before and after them was that they went, "We are going to go and to enter as many o- markets as possible, but we're going to ask for forgiveness rather than permission from a legislative perspective." So they really drove that home. And they had they the money to actually fight the battles when they needed to.
ALEX TURNBULL, FUND MANAGER AND GOCATCH INVESTOR: It meant that we basically lost the Rideshare market, because we were slow to take up and being a second entrant was quite challenging. If I had a time machine today I would suggest to go back in time and say, do what Uber did.
SEAN NICHOLLS: What GoCatch didn't know, was that in Uber's Australian headquarters, another covert tool was being prepared. A secret program dubbed 'Surfcam' was developed in 2015 by an employee in Uber's Sydney head office. Surfcam was used to gather data to poach drivers employed by rival companies. Four Corners has learnt that one of those targeted was GoCatch.
ANDREW CAMPBELL CO-FOUNDER AND CEO, GOCATCH: Yeah. Well, we were a small team back then, so there were about half a dozen of us operating a scalable technology platform. But we could see that our drivers were being acquired from usage on our systems and on our app. We heard it from the drivers directly, and we saw it in unusual behaviour in the data that we were looking at.
SEAN NICHOLLS: GoCatch didn't know how it was being done. Uber's Surfcam spyware was used covertly against GoCatch to identify driver details. This allowed Uber to directly contact the GoCatch drivers and lure them to work for Uber.
SEAN NICHOLLS: So what's your reaction to learning that Uber was using spyware against your company with a specific desire to drive you out of business?
ANDREW CAMPBELL: Well, the fact that Uber used hacking technologies to steal our data and our drivers is appalling. It had a massive impact on our business. It sets a really dangerous precedent for Australian economy and the Australian businesses as well. It tells every multinational company to come to Australia and follow the same practise.
SEAN NICHOLLS: Have you ever heard of a piece of software called SurfCam?
SUSAN ANDERSON: I have not.
SEAN NICHOLLS: So SurfCam was used and developed in the Sydney office right here as a piece of software to scrape data on competitors. What do you think about that?
SUSAN ANDERSON: I'm afraid I've never heard of that software and I don't know anything about that.
SEAN NICHOLLS, REPORTER: Uber later told Four Corners Surfcam's use has been banned and that today Uber has robust policies to ensure ethical practices.
ANDREW CAMPBELL. I think our investors would be very angry to learn that Uber's been allowed to get away this sort of behaviour that has no doubt had an impact on their investment.
SEAN NICHOLLS: By 2017, every Australian state had introduced Uber-friendly laws.
SUSAN ANDERSON. Uber has made it easier for us to get about our cities and to actually spend our time doing the things we want to do. If I think about you Uber being used as a way to get us home faster, after we've been at work all day, it means you're more likely to get that bedtime story with the family.
SEAN NICHOLLS: In only a few years, Uber had outsmarted authorities and rivals to assert itself as the world's dominant ride share company. But in 2017, the win at all costs culture that helped get it there caught up with Uber.
NEWSREADER: "Google spin-off Waymo claims that Uber possesses stolen trade secrets related to self-driving cars.
NEWS REPORTER: A very confident Travis Kalanick was on the stand for just a little more than two hours today.
SEAN NICHOLLS: Google sued Uber, accusing it of stealing sensitive information about its autonomous car program. Uber settled the case for $US245 million. There was more bad publicity to come ... when a former Uber software engineer blew the whistle on a culture of sexual harassment.
SUSAN FOWLER, FORMER UBER SOFTWARE ENGINEER: I felt this crushing sense of powerlessness. This is the time to take my power back. Here's my story. It's an honour to be the person who can say 'hey, I spoke up about this. I took on the risk."
SEAN NICHOLLS, REPORTER: Then, following a sensational trial in India, a woman raped by an Uber driver sued the company. She accused senior Uber executives of illegally obtaining her medical records to undermine her credibility. Uber settled the case. By mid-2017, Uber's board and investors had had enough ... forcing Travis Kalanick to resign.
DARA KHOSROWSHAHI, UBER CEO: I'm Dara Khosrowshahi Uber's new CEO. Since joining Uber nine months ago, my priority has been to listen to you. Moving forward it's time to move in a new direction. One of our core values as a company is to always do the right thing. You've got my word that we're were charting an even better road for Uber and for those that rely on us every day.
HUBERT HORAN, TRANSPORTATION ANALYST: they knew what kind of culture was here. But the whole thing was to say, "Okay, we'll get rid of Kalanick, bring in Khosrowshahi, and now it's a redemption story. No, the culture was integral to the strategy for the investors.
SEAN NICHOLLS: Despite the change in leadership, Uber's troubles continued. After mass protests by drivers of London's black cabs, the city's transport department announced Uber would be banned.
SADDIQ KHAN, LONDON MAYOR: Uber aren't a fit and proper private vehicle operator. There are real concerns around safety and their security.
SEAN NICHOLLS: Uber successfully appealed the ban ... but remains on probation.
SEAN NICHOLLS: You must acknowledge though, that, the damage, the reputational damage to the company caused by everything that happened in that year and, and you know, before that was, was, was extraordinary. I mean how damaging was it?
MANIK GUPTA, VICE-PRESIDENT, AND UBER'S CHIEF PRODUCT OFFICER: Yeah. So look, you know, we made mistakes. I'll acknowledge that. Um, and at the same time, I think it's important how you recover from those mistakes and how you grow. And I feel pretty confident that under Dara's leadership, we're at a point now where we are much more open as a company, we are much more collaborative. Um, we are doing the right thing in a, in almost all the cases that we operate under.
SEAN NICHOLLS: In Australia Uber has more than 60,000 drivers. In Sydney, many of them gather here at what Uber calls its Greenlight Hub in the city's inner west. Mark Aliprandi has been driving with Uber for 4 years ... he's one of their model drivers
MAN: So how's your day been so far?
MARK ALIPRANDI: Fine.
MAN: Planning to drive today?
MARK ALIPRANDI: I am.
SEAN NICHOLLS: The Greenlight hub is the main point of contact for drivers who need assistance.
MAN: What I'm going to do is sign you in. Have a seat. Someone will call you up. Send you a message on your phone, a text.
SEAN NICHOLLS: Uber treats its drivers not as employees, but as contractors ... so they don't get holiday pay or superannuation.
SARAH KAINE, CENTRE FOR BUSINESS AND SOCIAL INNOVATION, UTS: The relationship between the drivers and Uber is skewed very much in Uber's favour. Because Uber can unilaterally change the contract. If the driver doesn't accept it, the driver doesn't get access to the app, they don't drive for Uber anymore. So, you couldn't pretend that there was any sense of negotiation, or equal bargaining power between drivers and Uber.
MAN: Log into that. Change your vacancy.
MARK ALIPRANDI: Fabulous.
MAN: That's it. Anything else I can help you with?
MARK ALIPRANDI: All good.
SEAN NICHOLLS: Mark Aliprandi says he drives 10 hours a day, five and a half days a week.
MARK ALIPRANDI: The best thing about driving for Uber is the social interaction. Ok, the money's good if you're a hard worker. Getting paid on time and being in control.
MARK ALIPRANDI: Righto, what's on tonight mate?
PASSENGER 1: Not much, taking it easy. It's my birthday today.
MARK ALIPRANDI: Congratulations. How old?
PASSENGER 1: 22. Too old.
MARK ALIPRANDI: Ha Ha. Wait til you get to 56, mate.
MARK ALIPRANDI: How you going Fraser?
PASSENGER 2: Good.
PASSENGER 3: I love this street.
MARK ALIPRANDI: It's all happening!
MARK ALIPRANDI: How you doin' James?
PASSENGER 4: I'm doing quite well. How are you?
MARK ALIPRANDI: Good mate.
PASSENGER 5: So you're Uber's most experienced driver?
MARK ALIPRANDI: Yeah.
PASSENGER 5: Most number of trips?
MARK ALIPRANDI: 23 thousand, six hundred.
PASSENGER 5: That's a fair number.
SEAN NICHOLLS: Uber takes up to 25 per cent of everything drivers earn. Mark Aliprandi says that in a good week - after paying petrol, tolls and GST - he can earn up to $30 an hour. But he's an exception ... a recent study showed Australian Uber drivers earn on average less than $15 an hour. That's about 20 percent below the minimum wage.
SARAH KAINE, CENTRE FOR BUSINESS AND SOCIAL INNOVATION, UTS: Some drivers kind of accept that it's a very transactional relationship. "I'm earning a few bucks on the side, whatever. Perhaps it's not super fair, but I'm doing it because it suits me." Then you have those who are trying to make a living out of Uber, and that's quite a different story.
SEAN NICHOLLS: Associate professor Sarah Kaine says refusing to treat drivers as employees is critical to Uber's bottom line.
SARAH KAINE: There's a huge financial incentive for Uber to maintain that framework of independent contracting. They're not alone in that. And they're certainly not alone in that in the gig economy.
SUSAN ANDERSON: Our driver partners tell us that it's the flexibility that they want. If they were to have fixed shifts and with that level of rigidity, then they would no longer be able to use the app. So we're working hard to make sure that they can have flexibility. The ability to be able to give us a driver's licence, show insurance, have a clean background check and to be able to earn is something that hasn't existed before. That access to earnings opportunity was new and very much desired.
SEAN NICHOLLS: Sarah Kaine says other businesses are eyeing off Uber's approach as a way to cut costs.
SARAH KAINE: There's a reason why the term Uberisation of work has become so popular. What we've seen is that employers or organisations in the gig economy, but also outside the gig economy, look at the relationship that Uber has with its drivers, and see that there is a financial gain to be made.
SEAN NICHOLLS: Uber's rise in Australia has battered the taxi industry. Australian taxi drivers, many of whom have lost their livelihood, are preparing a class action demanding compensation from Uber.
ELIZABETH O'SHEA, LAWYER, MAURICE BLACKBURN: These people are everyday people who've complied with the rules, who've run their business lawfully, who know what is required of them to be able to participate in this industry, and have done all the right things, and Uber comes along, has an advantage, because it's not complying with the relevant rules, and as a result these people have suffered loss. So I think we're definitely talking in the hundreds of millions, I think this could be the largest class action in Australian history.
BLAIR DAVIES, CEO, AUSTRALIAN TAXI INDUSTRY ASSOCIATION: They were providing a taxi service without all of the accreditation and facilities that they require to be a taxi service, and their intention was to take market share away from the taxi industry. Taxi businesses going about their lawful business, Uber was seeking to do damage. In a nutshell, that's illegal
SEAN NICHOLLS: Why shouldn't taxi plate owners whose plates have plummeted in value as a direct result of Uber X, be compensated?
SUSAN ANDERSON: Governments have put in place compensation schemes for taxi plate owners across Australia, in a number of states. In fact, the compensation schemes amount to up to about a billion in compensation, which has been put in place by governments.
REBEL WILSON: Tonight I'll be eating ham and pineapple pizza with the extra pineapple and a garden salad ... girl's gotta eats!
SEAN NICHOLLS: Now, Uber is delivering a whole new type of disruption in a completely different industry. At restaurants like this one in Sydney's inner east Uber is having a serious impact.
SERVER: There you are...
DRIVER: Thank you.
SEAN NICHOLLS: Customers pay a $5 delivery fee to Uber ... and Uber also takes a big cut of the sale from the restaurant.
MARK JENSEN, CHEF AND RESTAURANTEUR: Well that's the thing with Uber and customer's expectation, they actually think that they're supporting the restaurant industry by using Uber. But they don't appreciate that the restaurant pays 35 cents in the dollar straight to Uber for their convenience. And the thing is, we already work in a pretty tight environment. They're really putting the squeeze on the restaurants.
SEAN NICHOLLS: Mark Jensen says the popularity of Uber Eats means fewer customers walking into his restaurant.
MARK JENSEN: It's eliminated bums on seats. Given recent times, there's been very little growth in the business. I would actually say there's been no growth in the business. So then now that you're taxed 35%, essentially 35 cents on the dollar, that's eating into your bottom line.
SEAN NICHOLLS: UberEats and similar delivery services have even spawned what are called 'dark kitchens'... that have no shop front.
MARK JENSEN: It's not a bricks and mortar restaurant, there's no tables, there's no waiters, there's no food in house delivery service. So a restaurant just appears on an app. So that dark kitchen could be producing food for five, six, seven, 10, the sky is the limit, different cuisines under the one kitchen.
SEAN NICHOLLS: Mark Jensen fears the rise of dark kitchens could force traditional restaurants like his out of business.
MARK JENSEN: If I don't have to then employ people, front of the house people, if I don't need to spend money on lavishing the restaurant and making a really holistic dining experience, all that money I can then save and just concentrate on food costs, essentially food costs, packaging, refrigeration and production. That's all I have to consider.
SEAN NICHOLLS: So that's a real threat to the future of your industry.
MARK JENSEN: It's a real threat to the future of restaurants, full stop.
SUSAN ANDERSON: We've seen that for the majority of restaurants, this is increasing their revenue and it's a new customer that they weren't accessing before. Now it might not work for every restaurant and some restaurants may choose not to take part in the Uber Eats platform. But the vast majority of restaurants are having a good time.
SEAN NICHOLLS: This is where Uber is hoping to build its future. Inside an old shipbuilding factory in San Francisco's east is Uber's Advanced Technologies hub ... Where teams are fine tuning projects Uber hopes will dominate personal transport in coming decades ...
NICK FOLEY, UBER'S DIRECTOR OF JUMP: "We've built in some critical pieces of enabling technology that enable these great customer experiences."
SEAN NICHOLLS, REPORTER: They're talking up their electric share bikes.
NICK FOLEY: And we want to create transit hubs in places where there are highly organised bikes that are easy to access and always charged.
SEAN NICHOLLS: Uber is rolling out its bikes internationally ... as well as electric scooters.
NICK FOLEY: So the scooter on the handlebars has a brake, a bell and a throttle ... as well as foot brake on the back and suspension on the front that make a really safe and fun way to get around a city".
SEAN NICHOLLS: Uber built its brand on ridesharing and providing cheap fares ... but this hasn't covered its costs.
HUBERT HORAN, TRANSPORTATION ANALYST: Of course it's popular. The people who use it don't have to pay for the cost of their service. All of Uber's growth and popularity is due to tens of billions of dollars of predatory subsidies. The purpose of those subsidies was that the yellow cabs of the world don't have the backing of Silicon Valley billionaires and can't compete.
SEAN NICHOLLS: So it's bleeding cash ... in the last two years alone it's lost more than $US6 billion. That's problematic for Uber as it prepares to launch its first public share offering this year.
MIKE ISAAC: They have to sort of prove to Wall Street now that, "Yes, we're a ride hailing company. Yes, we provide rides. But we can grow much further beyond that," right. "We can do food delivery. We can have scooters and electric bikes. And uh, we can deliver all sorts of things in future." So their whole thing is, "Yes, we're a valuable company. But we can become tens of billions of dollars more valuable in the future. So you should buy our stock." And you know, it might actually work.
HUBERT HORAN: If you followed Uber, their story, their narrative on how they someday will make money, has changed every couple of years. First it was limousines, and then it was regular taxi service, and then it was carpools, and then it was food delivery, and then it was oo- u- urban logistics, and, "Oh, we're gonna become the dominant company in the future driverless car business. Oh, we're gonna become the Amazon of transportation.
SEAN NICHOLLS: One way Uber is trying to pump up its future is by pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into developing a self-driving car.
MAN: Wow, it's cool to see this thing up close.
BRANDON BASSO, UBER'S DIRECTOR OF AUTONOMY: The spinning thing is a laser, it's got a sensor bar of cameras, and then on the bumpers and around the vehicle there's radars and ultrasonic. And this is what we used in order to figure out what out there are pedestrians, are bicyclists, are cars.
SEAN NICHOLLS: Uber claims its fully functional autonomous cars will be on the road in five to ten years.
BRANDON BASSO: in the future, once we remove the driver, it can look entirely different. It can look like a conference room, it can look like light-rail commuter train, and the point is that, once we've actually gotten to the step where we can remove the driver and it's safer than a human, we can change entirely how this looks and feels, and how it works for a person.
SEAN NICHOLLS: Perhaps Uber's grandest future vision is Uber Air.
That vision is for thousands of autonomous flying taxis over the world's major cities. Uber reckons that before long we'll all be zipping around in flying taxis on our daily commute.
ERIC ALLISON, HEAD OF UBER ELEVATE: So you'll book an Uber Air on your app and then, depending on where you are, a car will show up to take you to a Skyport. Um, you'll seamlessly transition into one of these, these vehicles on the Skyport. It'll take you to the next Skyport. And then a new car will be there waiting for you to take you to your final destination.
SEAN NICHOLLS: Uber says it will start testing its flying taxis next year and launch a commercial service by 2023.
MAN: By providing unlimited access to the sky the Uber mega skyport becomes a destination that reclaims more than just time.
SEAN NICHOLLS: Australia is on the list.
ERIC ALLISON.: We've shortlisted five countries, um, where we're really looking at, uh, the right outside US market, the right global market to launch this in, in addition to Dallas and Los Angeles. And Australia's one of those five countries, in addition to France, Japan, Brazil and India. And, uh, and certainly in Australia, uh, Melbourne and Sydney are very much in the running, and we're ... we'll anticipate making an announcement in the June timeframe on that.
MIKE ISAAC: I mean, flying cars, self-driving car ... It's funny, because there's a period where everyone was like, "Oh, yeah. Self-driving cars are coming in five years." You know, "It's on its way." And, and it's not, it's not true. I mean, there are a lot of problems with artificial intelligence and um, machine learning that requires so much information on how, how traffic works, how roads work. And it's constantly changing. So a lot of this is much further off than you would think. And not to mention like regulations are nowhere even near able to handle any of this stuff. So a lot of that is a good growth story. And think of it more in like decades of innovation timeframes, rather than like two to five years.
SEAN NICHOLLS: Uber is banking on investors buying its story in the hope its coming public share offering will raise tens of billions of dollars.
HUBERT HORAN: This is really make or break for Uber. Uber's been in business, this is its 9th year, it started operations 2010. Um, they have 20 billion US dollars in investments so far. None of those investors have seen a penny of actual return with a few minor examples. They need a valuation of, I would estimate, at least 90 billion dollars for all their current investors to come out ahead. If they don't, if they get a significantly smaller valuation, some other investors will end up losing money, and the board warfare will all begin again. So either they go public, investor's happy, or it's a mess.
DAVID HOLMES, FORMER CEO, GOCATCH: Their main competitive advantage has it's been really Uber versus the taxi industry. I think it will be interesting to see Uber versus Tesla, Uber versus Mercedes, Uber against Boeing, if you're talking about those new industries. And I can tell you that they're much more competitive and they're just as ruthless if you go against them.
SEAN NICHOLLS: The hype has prompted speculation by investment banks that Uber's value could skyrocket to $US120 billion.
HUBERT HORAN: That would make it more valuable than all the airlines in America put together. That would make it the most valuable transportation company in world history.
SEAN NICHOLLS: And how realistic is that?
HUBERT HORAN: Well, think about the history of transportation. Fantastic innovations, diesel engines, jet engines, the application of computers to things like reservation pricing. If you believe Uber is worth a hundred billion, 120 billion, you're saying Uber's innovations are more important and more powerful than diesels or jets or computers.
MANIK GUPTA: I just feel that, uh, the pace of technological innovation in this space is so rapid that there's just so many new consumer behaviours that are being formed. And we, when we look at strategic priorities for our company, we absolutely have to invest in newer forms of transportation that are on the horizon. Otherwise, if we don't disrupt ourselves, somebody else will disrupt us.
SEAN NICHOLLS: Uber is entering a whole new world of competition. Its challenge is to convince the public and investors to come along for the ride.