With Uber driver Jason Brian Dalton having admitted to gunning down eight people, killing six of them, Saturday in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Uber's background check system is under increased scrutiny by the media and its own customers.
According to Uber, Dalton had been driving for the company in Kalamazoo since January 25, and had completed about 100 rides. He passed Uber's background check because he had no criminal record.
Still, the horrifying incident comes just weeks after Uber settled two class-action lawsuits for $28.5 million. The suits accused the company of exaggerating the efficacy of its background checks. Uber had called its driver checks "industry leading" and the "safest on the road." But George Gascon, a district attorney in San Francisco, said in a recent press conference: "We have learned they have drivers who are convicted sex offenders, thieves, burglars, kidnappers, and a convicted murder."
All this is leaving plenty of folks wondering: Maybe there's another way?
Just outside of Uber's spotlight are a handful of upstart companies in the person-moving space whose safety policies are not mere afterthoughts but integral to their offerings. These are startups marketing themselves as "Uber for unaccompanied minors." To convince parents to trust them with their children, they employ driver-screening methods Uber won't undertake, including fingerprint screening, reference checks, and several varieties of in-person interviews.
One of the companies is called HopSkipDrive. It was founded by three entrepreneurs--who are also each mothers--in Los Angeles. There's Shuddle in San Francisco, which provides licensed caregivers to shuttle kids and seniors from place to place. And there's Kango, whose logo is a bouncing kangaroo, and which schedules babysitters who also do transportation.
Signing up to drive with HopSkipDrive can, due to all this, take up to three weeks, since the company runs a full background check on every applicant, including fingerprinting. Drivers are also required to have five or more years experience in child care, and they are vetted in person.
It maintains a zero-tolerance policy for its "CareDrivers," which applies to alcohol and drug use as well as physical contact with passengers and use of a mobile phone while driving. In an indicator that it's actively looking to take on Uber, HopSkipDrive recently poached Eyal Gutentag, Uber's former general manager for Los Angeles, to join its team.
Shuddle has implemented an extraordinarily rigorous screening process, which includes, in roughly this order: a phone interview, a background check, multiple in-person interviews, six different identity and criminal-history screenings, a DMV check, and a vehicle inspection by a mechanic. It requires drivers to be certified in California as child-care providers, which is done through a third party called TrustLine. The company, which is based in San Francisco and operates only there for now, knows this rigorous screening will exclude a lot of drivers. "Most people can drive. But not everyone can drive for Shuddle," its website reads.
Carly Lutz, Shuddle's senior vice president of family experience, tells Inc. that the company's extensive screening process, which even includes in-person interviews with drivers' references, ensures that the company can "get people who are in it for the right reasons."
Shuddle has raised $12.2 million in equity funding; HopSkipDrive in Los Angeles has raised $14.1 million.
For its part, Uber is maintaining that its background checks are adequate. On a call with reporters Monday, it repeatedly reiterated that regardless of the quality of the background check it had completed on Dalton, the company would not have found anything more or anything less: Dalton had no criminal record.
"The perpetrator had nothing on his record," Uber's chief security officer, Joe Sullivan, said. He said Uber is not altering its background check process due to this incident. Nor is it adding any variety of "panic button," such as the one in beta testing on Uber's passenger app in India.
"In the United States, the panic button is [dialing] 9-1-1," Sullivan told reporters. "It's the panic button we want people to use and that law enforcement wants people to use."
Sullivan noted that Dalton's rating (on a scale in which 5 is the highest, and falling below a 4.6 can result in suspension or termination) was a 4.73. "The driver had received very favorable feedback from passengers who had ridden with him."
Uber admitted, however, that it is considering increased monitoring of driver behavior and is using a pilot program in its Houston operations to check on drivers using GPS data and the accelerometer in drivers' smartphones. Such an effort could validate, or nullify, passengers' complaints of bad driving--which Sullivan admitted are plentiful.
The new California "Uber for kids" companies claim there are benefits to working with them for drivers who can meet their loftier standards. A higher salary is one; a fun, kid-friendly environment (yes, drivers are allowed to bring their own children along for the ride) is another. Shuddle guarantees drivers $30 an hour, according to Lutz, which is more than they'd make as a nanny--or driving for Uber or Lyft in the Bay Area.
Most drivers they interview, though, have other reasons for choosing Shuddle.
"When we talk to our drivers about why they are interested in driving for Shuddle, the financial is not necessarily the main reason," Lutz says. "They are nurses and moms and empty nesters wanting to be active in their community, and be helpful to neighbors and families who need a hand. They can take a senior to a doctor's appointment or a kid home from a dance lesson, and that feels great."
There's one big potential downside, though: The life of a driving nanny is certainly one of nanny-state-like surveillance.
Whereas Uber is eschewing a "panic button," Shuddle has the equivalent for parents, kids, and drivers, so each can connect with each other at any point--or with the company, which has employees monitoring rides and standing by to take calls. HopSkipDrive provides live customer-support monitoring for all rides, too. Both companies allow parents to view the ride in progress. And both have partnered with Zendrive, a software company that monitors driving behavior and the drivers' phone use.
Shuddle drivers seem to like the additional monitoring. "We've found they actually like being noticed for their own good behavior," Lutz says.
While these upstarts are sticking with slow growth right now, honing their abilities to provide 100 percent reliable rides, they've noticed one area of growth that Uber might take heed of: regular, able-bodied adults are starting to use their services. Lutz says she's seen moms schedule Shuddle rides--which are more expensive than hailing an Uber or Lyft, but of course come with a driver who's been through Shuddle's screening process--for themselves.
Maybe it's just the convenience of booking all the family's rides in one place. Or maybe Shuddle and its peers are onto something that's not just for kids.