| Kyle Barnett

Despite safety concerns, ride-sharing businesses strong and growing

While Uber has faced deeper scrutiny this week after one of its Michigan drivers went on a deadly shooting rampage, analysts say the marketplace for the nation's ride-sharing companies is only expected to grow, even amid security concerns.

Uber drivers give over two million rides daily in the United States alone, hiring thousands of new drivers each month. And while the company is weathering a public relations storm over safety problems for riders, those seem minimal when compared to the number of trips taken each day around the nation, says Harry Campbell, who pens a well-known blog about the business on his website, TheRideshareGuy.com.

"The number of (security) incidents on a percentage basis is going to be minuscule. But at the same time Uber is a leader in this space and they should also be the leader on safety," says Campbell, a former Boeing aerospace engineer in Los Angeles whose website is devoted to this emergent form of transportation which allows customers to order a car and driver via smartphone app.

"My biggest problem — they have really done the bare minimum," Campbell, a part-time driver of both Uber and competitor company Lyft, observes. "I don't see them proactively going out and testing people, doing fingerprinting. They have been vehemently against background checks. They have actually pulled out of cities where those have been required."

Uber on Monday held a conference call with reporters after Kalamazoo driver Jason Brian Dalton went on a shooting spree Saturday night, killing six people and wounding two others. Dalton, who had no mental health history, according to police there, reportedly picked up fares in between stopping at an apartment complex, a Cracker Barrel parking lot and a car dealership to open fire.

Dalton, 45, and a married insurance adjustor with two children, has been charged with six counts of murder. He has confessed to the shootings, but police have said they do not yet have a motive. He had no prior criminal record and had obtained weapons he owned legally, police said. Neighbors have described him as "friendly" and "normal."

"If there’s no criminal record, no background check is going to raise a flag," Uber's chief security office Joe Sullivan said in a phone conference covered by multiple media outlets.

But Valentino Hernandez, who owns the Lansing, Michigan-based company iCab Taxi Service, says he hopes the Michigan incident forces lawmakers in his home state and beyond to do much more to scrutinize such ride-share drivers.

"The best we can do now is hope that the lawmakers in Michigan start the regulation process," Hernandez said. "Über should be regulated the same as taxis and limousines. Taxi drivers are regulated beyond measure and Über gets a pass in every city in Michigan. I say shut them down until they comply. It's unfortunate what happened, but I'm pretty sure a lot of states are going to revisit how they view these ride-sharing companies."

Already some are doing just that with Uber suspending operations amid city backlash in places like Portland, Oregon, San Antonio, Texas, Panama City Beach, Florida and Tuscaloosa, Alabama, among others. In December, the city council of Austin, Texas voted to require fingerprint-based background checks of Uber and Lyft drivers. Repeal of the new ordinance goes before Austin voters on May 7, with both Uber and Lyft noting they would suspend operations if the fingerprint requirement sticks.

Despite the civic outrage, Campbell said that he think Uber and other emerging competitors are likely here to stay. "I think as far as the Uber business model, it is only getting bigger and growing."

Campbell adds that Uber, a fast-growing business valued at more than $50 billion in 2015, is also looking at expanding its market. The company has been lowering fares in an effort to move riders behind occasional use like trips to the airport, to a place where some might consider dumping their vehicles in favor of taking ride-share transportation only.

In some cities, at least, that seams a meaningful strategy, he said.

"If Uber can get customers relying solely on it for all of your transportation needs, where it's even cheaper than owning or operating a vehicle, they are really looking at that market as potential humongous growth," said Campbell. "I think logistically, and from the sense that it's just bettering consumers' lives, a lot of people are going to choose the not-to-drive option."