Following up on a National Bureau of Economic Research report released last month which found that Uber and Lyft drivers in Seattle and Boston discriminated against passengers with African American-sounding names, Senator Al Franken wrote to the companies' respective CEOs this Wednesday demanding to know what steps, if any, they were taking to address the issue. TechCrunch reports that the Senator asked why it was even necessary to give potential passengers' names and photos to drivers before a ride is confirmed — and if removing that information could correct the problems identified by the NBER report.
“Regrettably, African Americans and other racial minorities have long experienced discrimination when attempting to hail a taxi directly from the curb, with cabs either driving past African-American customers or refusing to accept passengers traveling to certain neighborhoods,” wrote Franken. “Ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft have the potential to offer consumers relief from discrimination and destination bias, and have already shown great promise by increasing travel options within underserved neighborhoods. But as app-based driving services reshape the transportation industry, it is essential that companies ensure technology does not give cover to bias, whether intentional or unconscious.”
The study, which looked at roughly 1,500 attempts to hail rides in the two cities, found "results [which] indicated a pattern of discrimination, which we observed in Seattle through longer waiting times for African American passengers—as much as a 35 percent increase." A different form of discrimination was observed in Boston — specifically, "more frequent cancellations against passengers when they used African American-sounding names."
Women were also found to be taken on longer rides than men, with the added time appearing "to be a combination of profiteering and flirting to a captive audience."
Senator Franken was not pleased, and asked that the companies respond to a series of questions on how they plan to address the pattern of discrimination identified by the NBER. "Your companies’ non-discrimination policies already prohibit discrimination against passengers on the basis of race and other characteristics, and provide that violations of those policies may result in drivers losing access to your platforms or having their accounts deactivated," reads one such question. "What additional steps will you take to disincentivize drivers from canceling rides or engaging in other discriminatory behavior?"
Senator Franken gave Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and Lyft CEO Logan Green until December 16 to respond.