Uber Loses London License, Finds Its Business Model Threatened

The list of issues reported by Transport for London is shocking. 

 

Ever use Uber? I have several times and found it startlingly convenient. Unfortunately, after September 30, the option for Londoners could come into jeopardy. City regulatory agency Transport for London (TfL) has decided not to renew Uber’s license past that date. According to the notice, “Private hire operators must meet rigorous regulations.” That includes taxis. “TfL must also be satisfied that an operator is fit and proper to hold a license.” The agency said Uber hasn’t met these standards.


The notice also reported, “TfL considers that Uber's approach and conduct demonstrate a lack of corporate responsibility in relation to a number of issues which have potential public safety and security implications.” These include:

  • Uber's approach to reporting serious crimes.
  • Uber's approach to obtaining medical certificates.
  • Explaining its use of Greyball- internally developed software that can be used to block regulatory agents from gaining full access to the app.
  • Uber can operate for 21 days while the appeal process takes place, so, fear not Londoners! Your Uber is safe (for now). The company responded by saying it was challenging the decision in court immediately. Uber’s general manager in London, Tom Elvidge told reporters, “Transport for London and the mayor have caved in to a small number of people who want to restrict consumer choice.”

    Black cab driver groups, former Uber drivers, and certain politicians have targeted the company, citing it as a case for tougher regulations and in some cases, an outright ban. Complaints include that Uber treats its own staff poorly, fails to do proper background checks on drivers, doesn’t consider passenger safety as they should, undercuts the local black cab industry, and doesn’t contribute enough in taxes to the UK. According to London Police, 32 Uber drivers were accused of sexual assault between 2015 and 2016. They’ve also said the company has failed to disclose or drags its heels on reporting such crimes.

    Another setback for Uber in the UK could happen in November, when a tribunal might label its employees workers rather than independent contractors. The former will result in Uber needing to pony up holiday pay and stick to minimum wage requirements. Losing London is going to hurt Uber’s bottom line significantly, analysts say. The city has 3.5 million Uber users, according to the company, and 40,000 drivers in London work for Uber.

    An online petition condemning the move shot up on the internet shortly after the announcement's release. It garnered 20,000 signatures within five hours. The tech giant claims to operate in 600 cities around the world, but as of late it's been a bumpy ride (pun intended). Recently in North America, the firm paid out $20 million to clear allegations that it misled drivers, telling them they would earn far more than they actually could. And in another case earlier this year, CEO and founder Travis Kalanick was pushed out due to a number of scandals involving sexism and bullying inside the company. Denmark and Hungary have booted the startup. And it’s facing lots of legal battles as well, over regulatory violations in several US cities and countries around the world.

    London’s powerful black cab industry has been calling for tougher regulations on Uber. Getty Images.

    London’s mayor Sadiq Khan released a written statement supporting the decision. He said,

    I want London to be at the forefront of innovation and new technology and to be a natural home for exciting new companies that help Londoners by providing a better and more affordable service. However, all companies in London must play by the rules and adhere to the high standards we expect – particularly when it comes to the safety of customers. Providing an innovative service must not be at the expense of customer safety and security. I fully support TfL’s decision – it would be wrong if TfL continued to license Uber if there is any way that this could pose a threat to Londoners’ safety and security. Any operator of private hire services in London needs to play by the rules.

    Is this the beginning of the end for Uber? The company is one in the richest of Silicon Valley. It’s worth $70 billion. It’s also got bigtime investors of the likes of Goldman Sachs. Fighting and deflecting scandal seems part of Uber’s business model. It made its way up by elbowing through the room and ignoring the consequences. Today, in some places at least, it may need to learn to play nice or else heavily diversify, so that it can enjoy as prosperous a future.

    To get a feel for the reaction Londoners are having, click here: 

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    • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
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    The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

    But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

    What's dead may never die, it seems

    The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

    BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

    The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

    As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

    The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

    "This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

    An ethical gray matter

    Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

    The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

    Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

    Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

    "This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

    One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

    The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

    "There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

    It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

    Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

    The dilemma is unprecedented.

    Setting new boundaries

    Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

    She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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