Positioning his company as an environmental planet saver and not simply a money-making lightning rod, Uber founder and CEO Travis Kalanick is warning that regulation could be disastrous for his ride-sharing service – erasing benefits that transcend a convenient ride to work or home from the bar.
Mr. Kalanick made the comments at the TED Conference in Vancouver – a city where Uber has generated much debate and is currently not allowed to operate.
In his TED Talk, Mr. Kalanick portrayed Uber as a commute-shortening, carbon footprint-reducing, productivity-enhancing answer to an environmentalist's prayers – and not simply as a company that is "in the process of turning taxi drivers into dinosaurs," as TED curator Chris Anderson put it.
Cab drivers in several cities have held protests against Uber. But rather than focus on the headline-making clashes, Mr. Kalanick highlighted environmental benefits of the service – noting that the recently launched car-pooling service UberPool is having a significant impact.
"We rolled it out in Los Angeles eight months ago and since then we've taken 7.9 million miles off the roads. And we've taken 1.4 thousand metric tonnes of CO2 out of the air," he said to applause. "But my favourite part is that eight months later, we have added 100,000 new people that are carpooling every week."
Mr. Kalanick drove home his point by telling the story of the jitney – a U.S. passenger car service that launched just over 100 years ago, offering commuters an alternative to long trolley-car lineups. It took off, but by 1919, the jitney was regulated out of existence at the behest of the trolley industry, Mr. Kalanick said.
"That's unfortunate because when you can't share a car, then you have to own one. And car ownership skyrocketed." He told the audience that Americans spend seven billion hours a year sitting in traffic and that one-fifth of the country's carbon footprint comes from those cars.
"Imagine without the regulations that happened if that thing could just keep going. How would our cities be different today? Would we have parks in the place of parking lots? Well, we lost that chance. But technology has given us another opportunity."
Mr. Kalanick said self-driving cars will present further opportunities for Uber – which he believes should continue to thrive.
"There's just one hitch: It's called regulation."
Uber has had a difficult time in Canada. While Edmonton has decided to allow it, Vancouver has voted against the service. Meanwhile, the B.C. government has indicated that ride-sharing services are "inevitable" in the province. Uber has said it will not move into the province until regulations are developed.
Mr. Kalanick did not address the challenges Uber has faced in Canada and turned down The Globe and Mail's interview requests at TED.
By contrast, another sharing-economy giant, Airbnb, is thriving in Canada – with 33,000 listings.
But in Vancouver – where vacancy rates are very low – concerns have been raised that Airbnb may be having an impact on the housing market, with its listings eating into houses available for rent.
Co-founder and chief product officer Joe Gebbia, who was also speaking at TED on Tuesday, said in an interview that he has not seen any hard evidence of that. After the interview, he sent a statement: "Airbnb is creating a model to solve accommodation problems during peak travel seasons or during major events. We help cities to expand their offering and make better use of the resources they already have without ever putting a shovel in the ground."
Further, he said, the service has been a financial godsend for hosts – helping Americans keep their homes during the economic downturn, for instance.
"Airbnb was founded on making housing affordable. Our roots, our DNA, are in how do we help people stay in their homes?"
Mr. Gebbia also said cases such as that of a Calgary Airbnb rental that was famously trashed last year are extremely rare. "Out of the 123 million nights we've ever hosted, less than a fraction of a per cent have been problematic," he said in his TED Talk.
He said Airbnb is about more than commerce or finding a place to sleep, and he called the sharing economy "commerce with the promise of human connections." Mr. Gebbia told the story of a guest who had a heart attack while staying at an Airbnb in Uruguay. The host not only rushed him to hospital but donated blood for his operation.
The man's review read, in part: "Excellent house for sedentary travellers prone to myocardial infarctions. The area is beautiful and has direct access to the best hospitals. Javier and Alejandra … will save your life without even knowing you. They will rush you to hospital in their own car while you are dying and stay in the waiting room while the doctors give you a bypass. … And they let you stay at their house extra nights without charging you. Highly recommended."