The New York Times reported on Friday (March 3, 2017) that the transportation network company Uber had “for years engaged in a worldwide program to deceive the authorities.” The paper reported the goal of Uber’s Greyball program was to identify government and law enforcement officials who were trying to clamp down on the ride-hailing service. Uber would then show ghost cars in a fake version of the app or show that no cars were available, the Times reported. Uber said that this program denies ride requests to users who are violating their terms of service and gave examples of people aiming to physically harm Uber drivers and “opponents who collude with officials on secret ‘stings’ meant to entrap drivers.”
We audited Portland’s oversight of transportation network companies in 2016 and made recommendations to improve data reliability and inspections:
- We found that the Transportation Bureau had not verified the ride data that companies reported to the City. Without knowing whether the data was accurate or complete, the Transportation Bureau was at risk of under-collecting fees due to the City and could not measure the extent of potential customer service problems. Transportation officials said during the audit they trusted the data reported by transportation network companies.
- We also looked at the Transportation Bureau’s inspection process, when inspectors surprise drivers and vehicles on the road by pretending to be customers. While these inspections were proactive and usually went smoothly once started, we noted that surprise inspections became ineffective when companies or drivers recognize the inspector and then change their behavior. And even when drivers are honest and cooperate with inspectors, the Transportation Bureau had no assurance yet against company-level evasion.
- Companies and drivers must accept any ride request and are not allowed to refuse service to passengers. This requirement is in City Code section 16.40.240.A and 16.40.280.D.
- We recommended the Transportation Bureau ensure that companies’ self-reported data is accurate and complete, through more robust verification. We also recommended the Transportation Bureau ensure inspections are a surprise to drivers and companies. We made six more recommendations to improve the City’s oversight.
As Portland’s elected and transportation officials develop a response to the revelations about Uber’s alleged deception, you can review the independent and objective information in our audit here.
-- Minh Dan Vuong, Senior Auditor