The ride-hailing revolution holds the potential to radically change the way people get around. But the political battle over Uber and Lyft in California has focused on something more obscure: fingerprints.
Uber is facing some of the fiercest challenges to its business practices from an array of California officials who claim the Silicon Valley-based company does not adequately screen its rapidly expanding pool of tens of thousands of drivers.
In Los Angeles, Sacramento and San Francisco, the 5-year-old company valued at $50 billion is battling demands that it use law enforcement fingerprint checks to help ensure customers aren't getting into cars with drivers who have recent records of violence or crime.
The debate intensified this week. Los Angeles lawmakers weighed a proposal to allow the services full access to Los Angeles International Airport, while district attorneys in L.A. and San Francisco said they had identified 25 Uber drivers with convictions for murder, assault, driving under the influence and other offenses.
Uber officials have said their screening procedures are as good as those they are being pressured to adopt. Some elected officials have pushed back, saying Uber's process can miss key criminal databases or rely on others that are incomplete. That claim is among the allegations in a consumer protection lawsuit against Uber filed by San Francisco Dist. Atty. George Gascón and Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey.
"I support technological innovation," Gascón said in a prepared statement. But innovation "does not give companies a license to mislead consumers about issues affecting their safety," he said.
The question of passenger safety resonates with customers and has caused divisions among typically like-minded California Democrats. At City Hall, Westside Councilman Mike Bonin is a leading supporter of ride-hailing services at LAX, but North Hollywood-area Councilman Paul Krekorian is pressing for their drivers to undergo FBI background checks.
A number of other issues such as insurance coverage and liability have swirled around the rise of Uber and similar services. But for both elected officials and their constituents, questions of criminal histories are "a much more immediate concern if you're deciding whether to use one of these services rather than a traditional taxi," said Melinda Jackson, an associate professor of political science at San Jose State University.
Hugh Tallents, a partner at New York management consulting firm cg42, said that "there's no [political] race where being on the side of the consumer, quote unquote, is a bad thing." Some politicians fear that they will be branded "anti-innovation" if they raise concerns about the so-called sharing economy, he said.
But coming at ride hailing from a consumer safety angle is usually a safe political bet, he said.
That point is not lost on cab companies, Uber's biggest opponent. Taxi lobbyists have latched onto the driver safety issue, even circulating a binder at L.A. City Hall detailing the criminal records of Southern California Uber drivers, including a convicted second-degree murderer and a registered sex offender.
That information came to light less than a week before the majority of the City Council, citing safety concerns, voted to tap the brakes on a proposed airport policy that would allow Uber and Lyft to pick up passengers at LAX. West Los Angeles Councilman Paul Koretz, who pushed for the review, complained that the services are too loosely regulated and are part of what he calls the "cheating economy."
Bonin, one of City Hall's most vocal advocates for Uber and Lyft, says public safety "seems to be where the taxi industry is trying to steer the discussion."
The California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates Uber and Lyft in the same manner as limousine drivers, doesn't require drivers to provide fingerprints, often considered the gold standard for security screenings because they can identify applicants using an alias or lying about their criminal records. By contrast, prints of Los Angeles taxi drivers are checked against federal criminal databases.
Uber argues that smudged fingerprints can lead to inaccurate results from checks against the FBI's criminal database. That system also can flag applicants who were never convicted, Uber says, which can lead to discrimination against minorities. No background check is "100% foolproof," Uber spokeswoman Eva Behrend said.
Labor laws might discourage Uber and other such start-ups from adopting background checks used by other industries because it could complicate legal questions over whether drivers are employees or independent contractors, said Matthew Mitchell, a researcher on the sharing economy and consumer protection at George Mason University. Ensuring the quality of contractors can make them look "more and more like employees" in the eyes of the law, he said.
Analysts say more extensive background checks could make it harder for ride-hailing companies to recruit new drivers and get them on the road within days.
One driver mentioned by the prosecutors in their lawsuit was convicted of second-degree murder and spent 26 years in prison, according to court documents. He gave a different name when he applied to drive for Uber, and a background check found no known aliases and no criminal history. The driver gave 1,168 rides over seven months.
Prosecutors also said they found three unlicensed drivers who used someone else's account to drive for Uber.
The latest disclosures by the district attorneys don't appear to have changed the political dynamics at City Hall. Councilman Bob Blumenfield said the information was troubling, but it didn't alter his support in a committee vote this week for a permit process that would allow ride-hailing firms to pick up passengers at the airport.
Safety "is not as simple as one fingerprint or one particular method of checking," he said. Background checks have gotten a lot of attention because they're "sensational," Blumenfield said. He and other supporters of the start-ups say the app-based services have added accountability because passengers know the identity of the drivers and license plate number of the car picking them up.
The full council is scheduled to vote on the LAX proposal next week. Members also could formally ask state regulators to add a fingerprint requirement for all for-hire drivers in California.
As agencies scrutinize Uber's background checks, Arun Sundararajan, a professor of business at New York University, said they also should evaluate the effectiveness of taxi driver screening.
"If people say Uber missed a certain fraction of drivers, how frequently does this happen with government regulators?" said Sundararajan, who studies the sharing economy. "Are they perfect? Or do they sometimes miss this?"
Uber has alleged that at least 600 people who drove taxis in Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco failed Uber's background checks — figures disputed by taxi company officials.
In 2014, City Hall officials said, eight applicants out of several thousand were denied taxi permits based on background checks. In that year, 13 cab drivers were convicted of crimes that led to the revocation of their permits.
Last year, a bill proposed by state Assemblyman Adrin Nazarian that would have mandated fingerprint-based background checks died in committee after Uber spent thousands of dollars lobbying against it.
"The fingerprint is the only unique feature of any human being that with 99.99% [certainty] can affirm the individual who the fingerprint belongs to," Nazarian said. "Nothing else beats that."