On a cold December day last year, Ryan Kelley was in agony. For three hours he was jerked around so violently inside one of Uber’s self-driving cars that his head was pounding and his vision was blurring.
Kelley was one of Uber’s safety drivers tasked with testing the car as it drove itself around on public roads, documenting its issues and grabbing the wheel when it threatened to hit anything.
“I loved the job. I was working on something that is going to change the world,” the former driver told Business Insider. The money was good. The benefits were incredible. And Kelley, an IT professional by training, was wowed by the tech.
But the job was also stressful. “The car was scared by foliage, scared by leaves, scared by telephone poles,” he said. “It would view those as objects that jumped out, and it would swerve or slam on the brakes, or it may just randomly cross the yellow line into oncoming traffic.”
Problems that engineers had fixed would suddenly reappear. “They would never tell us as drivers, ‘Hey, this [software version] release is going to do these things we told you we fixed,'” he said.
On this day, the car was particularly rough.
“I was driving the car, and they had done something with the release where it was braking needlessly and hard for anything that was walking on a sidewalk,” he said. “They had me testing in a specific area in Pittsburgh where there were a ton of pedestrians, and I was on a short [driving] loop, so there was no respite.”
He said it was like “being in a series of low-end collisions for three hours, with my head slamming against the headrest constantly.”
When he went from headache to tunnel vision, he called his shift leader and agreed to take his lunch break.
Kelley says drivers were allotted two 10-minute breaks and one 30-minute unpaid lunch per shift. (Uber says the policy was to take 10- to 15-minute paid breaks as needed to avoid fatigue.) While the food at headquarters was free for all employees — a benefit he loved — the drivers had to clock out to eat it.
In December 2017, the whole team was under intense pressure to log as many miles as they could, not even stopping for bathroom breaks, Kelley said. Stopping could freak out the car, requiring up to an hour of rebooting or troubleshooting, which meant fewer miles driven.
“They made it clear you probably should hold it,” he said.
During lunch that day, other drivers were complaining of headaches from the cars’ behavior too. They reported this to their supervisor, who told the manager responsible for safety, Rob Shoup.
Kelley was sitting with his head between his knees, trying not to throw up, when, according to Kelley, Shoup saw him and said, “They are just faking it, trying to shirk work.” (Uber denied that Shoup accused anyone of faking their complaints.)
Kelley was infuriated. “I was so sick, I couldn’t even stand up and defend myself,” he said.
Kelley was told to knock off early, which he did, and Shoup went out in the car. After he experienced the hard-braking himself, he suspended drivers from the route Kelley was driving until the issue was fixed, and he flagged it for immediate review to multiple teams of engineers.
Once Kelley was home, his wife made him go to the emergency room. The doctor said he had a mild concussion “consistent with symptoms for a low-speed car accident,” Kelley said.
He took the ER diagnosis into work the next day to vindicate himself and the other drivers, and he reported Shoup’s comment to the company’s human-resources department.
About a month later, on January 26, Kelley was fired.
Uber’s HR told him he had let the car roll through a stop sign on January 3 and failed to report it. Kelley denied that this incident occurred and told Business Insider that he was never shown the car’s video of the incident. Uber says that after initially denying it, Kelley later admitted fault and apologized. His apology did not get him reinstated to his job.
“I truly believe I was let go because I was a squeaky wheel. I made safety concerns,” he said.
A few months later, in March, one of Uber’s self-driving cars in Arizona ran over a pedestrian and killed her. That vehicle was using a version of Uber’s software in which company engineers had disabled the car’s ability to brake hard, citing safety reasons, as Business Insider previously reported.
Despite widely known problems with Uber’s self-driving software during the period leading up to the accident, Meyhofer, the leader of the self-driving-car unit, Advanced Technologies Group, had continued to test cars on public roads. Meyhofer wanted to show Uber’s new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, impressive metrics under his leadership, such as miles driven, according to half a dozen employees and documents Business Insider reviewed.
On the road again
Uber’s self-driving cars were benched from the public roads after the fatal accident, but as of this week they are back on Pittsburgh’s streets. Uber says it has revamped its safety policies since the accident — features that don’t pass testing in closed “track” environments are no longer allowed in cars being tested on public roads, and a vehicle must now have two safety drivers if it’s traveling above 25 mph.
In an emailed statement, Meyhofer acknowledged that the team made “missteps” in the past but said it had done some soul-searching in the nine months since the fatal accident.
“Our team continues to demonstrate a strong commitment to building a culture rooted in safety, transparency, and continuous improvement across every facet of our self-driving development,” he said. “While we have made some missteps in the past, we are optimistic that the changes we’ve made over the last 9 months reflect the kind of culture we want to foster at ATG.”
While the soul-searching has resulted in some specific new safety rules, several people close to the company told Business Insider they believe Uber has not fully resolved the fundamental problems within ATG that allowed dangerous practices to flourish and go unnoticed in the first place.
The employees we talked to said they fear that as Uber races to catch up with self-driving-car competitors and make up for time lost while its fleet was sidelined, the deeper culture problems mean ATG is operating with a dangerous blind spot that could hinder its ability to foresee another accident.
According to 10 Uber employees and former employees — all of whom worked under Meyhofer within the past few months — the self-driving-car group remains a deeply political workplace, impaired by a culture of fear, retaliation, and paranoia.
“Fear of retribution is pervasive there,” one former employee said. “It’s core to the leadership and culture. I was in so many meetings where people would shrug and say, ‘Hey, I don’t know if doing this sketchy thing is such a good idea.’ But if you speak up, even if you ask for data so you can do your job, there’s a target on your back.”
They said that most of the same senior people in place before the accident are still calling the shots now. Several employees described ATG as a place where smart but unqualified people rise to positions of power because they show “loyalty” to Meyhofer.
Meyhofer’s senior leadership team is also under instructions “to demonstrate something very publicly in 2019,” according to minutes of an internal meeting seen by Business Insider. And then there are Uber’s plans for a massive initial public offering next year — and the self-driving-car technology is considered an important component in how investors value the company.
Leaked employee survey: Safety good, stress is high
Stress within Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group is on the rise.
According to a leaked copy of Uber’s October internal employee culture and satisfaction survey seen by Business Insider, the number of ATG employees who said they were able to “manage my work stress in a healthy way” declined by 6% from the previous survey, six months earlier.
Fifty-seven percent of ATG employees said they were able to manage their work stress in a healthy way, while 34% said they were “neutral,” meaning they didn’t say they were unable to manage their stress but also didn’t say they could.
In an internal email to ATG staffers, Meyhofer noted that the group scored better than Uber employees overall (56% of those employees said they were able to manage work stress in a healthy way) and vowed to do better. He encouraged employees to take advantage of benefits like exercise reimbursement and paid-for therapy, and asked them to “spend some time thinking about where you may not have struck the right balance in 2018” and talk to their managers “to set the right boundaries for yourself.”
On the bright side, most employees surveyed said they believe they are building a safe self-driving car.
Eighty-three percent said they felt ATG “values safety when it comes to development of self-driving technology,” with 14% saying they were neutral. And 82% of employees said they felt empowered to report safety concerns without retaliation, with 14% saying they were neutral, leaving only 4% who said they didn’t feel safe to speak out.
While those results indicate that most employees think they would have nothing to worry about when flagging concerns, the experiences of some employees that Business Insider spoke to suggest a more fraught situation.
‘Hit list’ fears and a conference-room bug sweep
Multiple people told Business Insider that Uber’s HR — particularly the head of HR, Julie Viray — wasn’t a place they felt they could go with their issues. Several people described Viray as one of Meyhofer’s henchmen, protecting him and his favored leaders by, as one person said, “digging up dirt” on employees who speak out against any of them, or who raise questions about progress and direction, one described.
Viray did not directly respond to requests for comment. Uber says this is a misguided characterization of her, noting that part of HR’s mission is to talk to people and look into complaints.
We talked to one person who defended Viray and praised her abilities to deal with troublesome colleagues, but others from across the organization — from offices in Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Arizona — told us that many employees are warned at some point not to trust HR generally or her specifically.
Viray is part of Meyhofer’s senior leadership team included in product-strategy meetings, including the one attended by 15 executives in mid-September at a secluded Montana resort.
Their four-day retreat included brainstorming sessions in the morning, horseback riding and fly fishing in the afternoons, and lunches and dinners at pubs and steakhouses, according to documents seen by Business Insider. At this meeting they brainstormed how to get their program back on track after the fatal pedestrian accident.
Multiple employees told us that if an employee complained about issues like safety concerns, or questioned processes or management decisions, they felt they would find themselves labeled as disloyal and put on what one called a “hit list.”
Once an employee is out of favor, they can face criticism about their performance that hinders their attempts to transfer onto a different team away from the trouble, multiple people told us. Uber says that no single manager or HR person has say over transfers and that they are handled by a separate team to ensure fairness.
Several employees said they believe that Viray and her HR team monitor Slack channels and private Slack messages for keywords including executives’ names and the names of these disfavored people. Uber told us this isn’t true.
Two people even told us they believed the conference rooms were bugged. This was such a widespread belief raised by employees that earlier this year Uber had both the IT department and the facilities department look at the conference rooms and confirm to employees that they were not bugged.
One software developer said he experienced disfavor when he asked for data on the car’s capabilities, including the things the car couldn’t do yet, to do the project he was hired to do. He was told that the data he needed didn’t exist, and he began to lobby managers to collect it but met resistance about getting data on what the car couldn’t do. He said he thought people were nervous about the safety implications of such information. Someone complained to HR about him; he said HR ignored his concerns about the data and focused on his personality.
“They criticized the sound of voice, my facial expressions, my hand gestures,” he said. He’s not white, and he said he felt he was being attacked, and his job threatened, for his cultural attributes.
“I would have put my head down and ignored it, but then I took an action,” he said: He reported the situation to Uber’s main HR hotline.
“The investigation turned into an investigation of me,” he said. Uber told us that if an employee complains about discrimination, the complaint is typically referred to an employee-relations team outside the employee’s division.
He was denied a transfer out of the self-driving-car unit, he said. So he worked harder to perform well and protect his job, but he also became more anxious and distraught at work, affecting his interactions with his coworkers. After months of scrutiny led by Viray, the software developer was put on medical leave by his doctor, and Uber never let him return, he said.
We also heard of multiple instances of coworkers or managers who would just “vanish,” either quitting or getting fired, with no explanation given to their teams. In some cases, employees were told not to contact those people, multiple people said. Uber denies that HR has ever forbidden employees to contact former workers, saying it’s standard HR practice not to discuss why a coworker leaves.
More than one person told us that a sense of paranoia comes from the top.
“We have a leader in Meyhofer that does not understand [self-driving cars’] autonomy, and he’s running the ship to a dead end,” one current employee told us. “He’s spending close to $1 billion of investors’ money. Senior leadership is filled with a bunch of close friends that worked together before, and HR is shielding them.” (Other sources said Meyhofer’s annual budget was closer to $600 million.)
And again, most employees said they were not concerned about landing on the so-called hit list. Eighty percent of employees in the culture survey said they trusted their manager, with 16% saying they were neutral.
Some see a Trump-like manager
One complaint our sources made repeatedly was that people were promoted to high-paying positions of power based on their loyalty to Meyhofer, rather than solely on their qualifications, and that these managers would in turn promote those loyal to them. Only 51% of surveyed employees said they felt positive about their opportunities for career growth, with 38% saying they felt neutral.
The most generous former employee described Meyhofer’s team like this: “It’s part of the problem of people who are extremely smart. They suffer issues that stem from their own intelligence. A lot of it is pride, thinking they can do everything.”
For instance, multiple employees told us that a director named David Stager was widely known internally as a difficult manager and had been the subject of multiple complaints by employees for his management style. People internally call him the unit’s “Donald Trump” and describe him as blustery, unwilling to listen, and given to acting superior, particularly toward women.
So when ATG’s 1,100 employees scored their management poorly on an iteration of the companywide employee culture survey in May, Viray’s HR team and the senior leaders wanted to improve employee morale by offering more manager training, employees told us.
“But guess who’s in charge of manger training? David Stager is in charge of manager training, the guy who many women have complained about,” one former employee said.
Stager did not respond to requests for comment. Uber says that the most recent employee survey data tells a different story and that a significant majority of Stager’s team has rated his performance favorably.
Uber also says that Stager’s role was not to revamp manager training content but to organize the scheduled training date, and that, as he’s known as a high-performing manager at the unit, he also taught a session on helping managers effectively recruit.
The employees we talked to told us that before the accident, Khosrowshahi was too busy putting out fires elsewhere to pay much attention to the self-driving-car unit. They therefore think he was ready to believe progress reports by Meyhofer even if they were sugar-coated, as some have claimed.
We understand that Khosrowshahi appears to be paying more attention now. But one person told us he still prefers not to rock the boat with a major reorganization at this delicate time while he’s focused on Uber’s anticipated IPO. Khosrowshahi hopes to convince investors that the company is worth $120 billion out of the gate and will grow from there.
This person suggested that the self-driving-car unit is important for investor confidence in Uber’s future and could itself be valued by the bankers as high as $13 billion. If Khosrowshahi were to replace its senior managers now, that wouldn’t be good for investor confidence, the theory goes.
Still, Uber now has its cars back on the road — driving among the public — where the consequences of those managers’ abilities are critical.
And employees tell us that internally Meyhofer just “doesn’t instill the best confidence.”
“At all-hands meetings, when he represents ATG, it’s just ridiculous,” one former employee said.
For instance, when an employee asked a question about shutting down the self-driving-truck program, Meyhofer started explaining how the company was now focused instead on Uber’s freight-shipping program, a very separate business. His gist was that Uber needed to focus on building a marketplace that could include self-driving trucks, one person said. But some said they found the response baffling.
And last month, as Business Insider reported, when Meyhofer was asked about our investigation into the decisions his team made leading up to the death of the pedestrian, he told a story about how much his kids liked coming to Uber’s campus.
“There’s now a meme within the company called ‘Eric’s kids.’ Every time something happens in the company, employees jest, “What would Meyhofer’s kids have to say? Would they like it?'” one person said. “It wasn’t just that one all-hands. He’s never presented well.”
- Read more about Uber’s self-driving-car program:
- Uber insiders describe infighting and questionable decisions before its self-driving car killed a pedestrian
- ‘We have screwed up’: Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi says in an all-hands meeting that the company deserves some fault after its self-driving car killed a pedestrian
- Uber removed the second backup driver from its self-driving cars ahead of the crash that killed an Arizona pedestrian