May 4, 2016 · 3 minutes


A rare misfire for Uber’s ruthless and normally uncannily effective master spinner Rachel Whetstone yesterday. It seems Uber comms got caught up in just which lies it was telling to the press and just which of its embattled constituents-- drivers, riders, or lawmakers-- it was throwing under the bus this week.

In an conversation with NPR’s All Things Considered Uber’s Jeff Schneider apparently decided it was time to throw its drivers under the bus, announcing that his “artificial intelligence engines” would soon allow the company to get rid of surge pricing. As NPR pointed out, surge pricing is one of the few things drivers actually like about working for Uber...

While drivers see surge as a key feature of the job — and Uber advertises it as such to them — inside the company surge pricing is considered a market failure, a problem to be solved.

"That's where machine learning comes in. That's where the next generation comes in," says Jeff Schneider, engineering lead at Uber Advanced Technologies Center. "Because now we can look at all this data, and we can start to make predictions."

After all, Schneider claimed, Uber has always really hated surge pricing. Uber’s artificial intelligence engines (Ding! Ding! New ride sharing buzzword! Didi argued this same thing on Bloomberg West last week!) are working on better managing drivers so they’re allocated where they need to go. No need for surging.

Uber loves consumers and wants their rides to be super-cheap! It’s those greedy, greedy drivers who love surge pricing.(Pando has previously covered organized schemes by the drivers to force surge pricing to occur.)

Unsurprisingly, the press got very excited about the u-turn. After all, Uber has long defended the brilliance of surge pricing, crediting it with getting more drivers on the road during emergencies. And drivers only love surge pricing because Uber has cut their rates while upping its own take, meaning in some markets drivers effectively are paying to drive for Uber. And some drivers are stuck in Uber car leases, making it hard to just walk away.

In response to the report and backlash, Uber had a number of options available. It could have announced a change of heart, it could have announced that it was replacing surge with automated tipping, something drivers have long been asking for and which is already offered by rival Lyft. Or it could have put the blame on its own employee, saying Schneider misspoke when he claimed surge was going away.

But this is Uber, and this is the Rachel Whetstone regime, so it chose none of those options. Instead it accused NPR of making up the story.

"Uber is always looking for ways to better predict supply and demand in a city. But this story is not accurate,” Uber told TechCrunch in a statement. “We have no plans to end dynamic pricing. While we understand that no-one likes to pay more for the same trip, it’s the only way to ensure that passengers can always get a ride when they need one."

In fact, Uber claimed, Schneider was merely saying they’d get better at predicting demand, not that surge was going away, said the company. Until, maybe, self-driving cars. But then drivers have bigger problems. NPR is “not accurate.” Just flat wrong! Ho. Ho. Ho. Silly journalists always getting it wrong. Uber is still the free market loving, driver hating company it always was!

Unfortunately, that’s where the wheels came off Uber’s latest attempt to smear the press instead of doing the right thing. NPR has published this transcript of the conversation with Schneider, which was not only on the record but conducted on stage at a conference:

Schneider: And so the idea is if you can predict that demand, you get that information out there – and you get that supply there ready for the demand so the surge pricing never even has to happen. And I think that's one of the really cool things that machine learning's doing for Uber right now.

Shahani: So just note, Jeff from Uber is saying that machine learning will solve the problem and get rid of surge pricing.

Schneider: There we go!

Shahani: There we go, promise to customers. 

A “promise to customers” that the company rebutted later that day as untrue. Yep. Sounds like Uber.

Funny how journalists always get it wrong by writing down exactly what Uber said and just waiting.