When Dara Khosrowshahi took the helm of Uber a year ago, replacing ousted co-founder Travis Kalanick, he projected confidence mixed with humility.
“I had no fricking clue what I was getting into — no predisposed notions,” he said Thursday during an interview at a tech conference in San Francisco. “Travis and team … built an incredible, important company. The board brought me on to change direction.”
And so Khosrowshahi has tried to do that, both in tone and in substance.
Uber started as a car service, but increasingly its mission is to get rid of cars, offering consumers a broad range of choices of how to get around. Uber, Khosrowshahi told the audience at TechCrunch Disrupt at the Moscone West convention center, aspires to be the “Amazon of transportation,” moving consumers, things and food from point A to point B via ride-hailed cars, scooters, bikes, robot taxis, flying taxis, rental cars and other modes.
A decade from now, Uber’s core ride-hailing business will be less than 50 percent of its business, but it will still offer consumers more choice than anyone else on how to get around, he predicted.
“We’ve got to deconstruct that car, just like cable is being unbundled,” he said. “Hopefully, 10 years from now, no one in the audience will own a car. I’m very bullish on personal electric vehicles. Scooters are (version) 1.”
Uber took another step toward the less car-centric future on Thursday, announcing an app feature called Mode Switch that allows users to more readily select options such as e-bikes or car rentals from Getaround. Uber, which provided part of a $335 million round of financing for San Francisco scooter startup Lime, soon will add Lime’s e-scooters as an option in cities where it operates.
Uber’s other units include Eats for food delivery, which Khosrowshahi said is the largest delivery service outside of China; Freight, for long-haul trucking; Elevate, the flying car service; and Jump for e-bikes and e-scooters. Eats, Jump and Freight are all growing and scaling as quickly as the UberX ride-hailing did in its early days, he said.
Even with losses that measure in the billions, Khosrowshahi thinks investors will understand that the $6 trillion transportation market offers extraordinary growth potential. He has said that Uber plans to go public next year.
Divesting Uber’s autonomous car project is “not in the plans,” even after a fatal crash in March, he said. That “was an enormous wake-up call for the company. You think about these possibilities theoretically and real life hits you in the face.”
Uber has completely revamped its robot-car approach, rethinking how it builds and tests self-driving technology. “We will be a better company for it,” Khosrowshahi said.
Uber drivers fear that robot cars will supplant them, a fear stoked by Kalanick’s past comments about getting rid of “the other dude” in the car. But Khosrowshahi said it’s not an either/or proposition, predicting that the company will offer a hybrid of human and robot drivers for years to come, based on what makes sense for each individual trip.
“There’s this drama around, is it autonomous or is it people,” he said. “The reality is people and computers … work together better than on a stand-alone basis.”
Flying taxis in the near future are entirely realistic, he said — and taking to the skies makes more sense than ever as increasingly dense cities face challenges building new infrastructure: “The true innovators, in the early days, have to be willing to be called crazy.”
The company’s multimodal aspirations just suffered a setback in San Franciso, where its Jump unit failed to win a permit for an electric scooter pilot program that will start in mid-October.
“Listen, we weren’t happy about the result of that process,” Khosrowshahi said. “The good news is we’ve got a bunch of Jump bikes on the streets now, so we have connectivity in the San Francisco market.”
Moreover, as a global company, Uber has 599 other cities where it operates that it can target with e-scooters, he said — including Santa Monica, where it was one of four companies (along with Lyft, Lime and Bird) to get permits for a scooter and bike pilot program. Khosrowshahi declined to say if Uber would appeal San Francisco’s decision, as Lime has already said it will do.
Khosrowshahi also addressed Uber’s issues with diversity and alleged insensitivity.
Uber is changing recruiting and promotions to improve representation of women and underrepresented groups and already sees improvements at all levels of the company, he said. A report Uber released in April showed modest increases, in the low single digits.
Khosrowshahi defended his hiring of new COO Barney Harford, who a New York Times article said, quoting unnamed sources, had made racially insensitive comments. “We’ve taken this as a learning moment, and goddamn it, we’ll improve,” he said.
Harford wrote a heartfelt apology and doesn’t deserve to be marked by a single remark, he said.
“I’ve known Barney for years, and I stand 100 percent behind him,” he said.
Overall, Uber is tackling an immense challenge.
“We are a digital company that is organizing the physical world,” Khosrowshahi said. “The physical world is a lot messier than the digital world: messy, unpredictable, tough to organize — and also more fundamental.”
Carolyn Said is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @csaid