Uber Toronto general manager Ian Black on why the city hates his company, and why John Tory doesn’t

Uber Toronto general manager Ian Black on why the city hates his company, and why John Tory doesn't

Q&A: Ian Black

Everyone has heard of Uber, but not everyone’s sure what it is. Help us out. It’s a smartphone app: click a button and a car arrives within minutes. The options are regular taxi, black-car service or UberX, which is a fleet of cars owned and driven by regular people.

Is it just me, or does UberX sound like the start of a slasher flick? Not at all. We do a criminal background check, which includes sexual offences, with zero tolerance for any lifetime viol­ation. For DUIs, we won’t hire anyone with an offence, ever; some of the mainstream brokerages only go back five years, so we think ours is a safer platform. In fact, drivers from mainstream brokerages recently applied to be UberX drivers and they failed our checks.

Has UberX Toronto received any complaints of assault? No. But if we did, we would respond within the hour, if not within minutes.

What percentage of your UberX drivers are male? About 90 to 95 per cent—higher than we’d like it to be.

You don’t have kids, but if you did, would you let your 17-year-old daughter take UberX? Not only that, but I’d encourage her to be a driver as soon as she was 21.

If my UberX driver gets in a car accident and mangles my leg, who do I sue? If you sue the driver, he’ll be covered under his personal insurance. If that maxes out or doesn’t cover the driver, our $5-million policy kicks in.

Before starting at Uber, you went to Queen’s, did an MBA at INSEAD and worked as a management consultant at Bain and Co. I’m noticing a distinct lack of disrupter cred. It’s true. I didn’t start a business out of a garage, I’m not 16, and I’m not a Silicon Valley hacker. But I do believe strongly that when a system is broken, just saying so isn’t acceptable.

Stop me when we get to your revolutionary of choice: Mahatma Gandhi...Nelson Mandela...Che Guevara— Stop. But I’d be more like one of his second lieutenants.

Che Lite. Exactly. Our CEO, Travis Kalanick, who’s based in San Francisco, is our rebel leader. I’m one of the guys who make his vision a reality.

What’s the most iconoclastic thing you’ve ever done? I threw water balloons at cars on Halloween when I was 13. Then I got scared and went home.

What was your career dream as a boy growing up in St. John’s, Newfoundland? Carpentry. When I was five, we had a carpenter working at our house for a few weeks, and he let me follow him around and hammer nails. I was convinced I had built my parents’ new house, and started telling people I was going to study carpentry at Yale. Years later, I realized I’m not handy at all, so I studied economics instead.

The head of Toronto’s licensing and standards division, Tracey Cook, is claiming you’re operating an illegal taxi business and is trying to shut you down. What’s your response? We’re a technology company, not a taxi company. Think of Uber as a platform for drivers, rather than an old-school company that’s dispatching taxis.

I talked to the executives over at Beck Taxi. They’re pissed. They follow the rules; you don’t. What’s your message to them? Innovate, be more creative and the rest will look after itself. Cab prices in Toronto are nearly double those in New York, and one and a half times most North American cities. It’s outrageous.

It’s pretty cocky to waltz into a city, ignore the regulations and then wait for the rules to adapt to suit your needs, isn’t it? Another way to look at it is if you don’t bring in a new model, the old one will always exist. We see a lot of gaps that need to be fixed. We don’t think regulations are set in stone, never to change.

Have you asked to meet with the regulator? Multiple times. No luck so far, but not for lack of trying.

John Tory seems to like what you’re doing. Is he a customer? I don’t know. But we were thrilled by his comments about our type of technology being here to stay.

Under what circumstances would Uber close in Toronto? When our city’s transportation system is perfect.

So in other words, never? Correct.


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