Last Friday, Uber announced it had raised another $1.2 billion, which means the car service company is now worth a total of $18.2 billion -- the highest-ever valuation for a venture-backed start-up. The news prompted a familiar cycle of bubble warnings and skepticism. $18.2 billion for a hopped-up taxi service?! How is it possible that Uber could be worth more than United Airlines, or Avis and Hertz, combined.
On Tuesday, the New York Times' Andrew Ross Sorkin defended the valuation. If Uber ends up controlling a quarter of the world's taxi market, he argues, "the investment is a home run."
But then he goes on to note that the smart money says Uber isn't just a taxi company -- it's "an extensive software platform for shipping and logistics."
“Uber is creating a digital mesh — a power grid which goes within the metropolitan areas,” is how Shervin Pishevar, an early Uber investor, described the company last year. “After you have that power grid running, in everyone’s pockets, there’s lots of possibility of what you could build like a platform. Uber is incorporated in the empire-building phase.”
Andrew Ross Sorkin has a well-deserved reputation for seeing things the same way corporate CEOs like to see them, but he is not at all wrong about where Uber thinks it is headed. In December, CEO and founder Travis Kalanick made Uber's ambitions clear:
“We need to stamp out an urban logistics fabric in every city in the world, then it’s figuring out other things we can do with that fabric,” he said, according to CNET. “It’s going to be interesting for us in 2014.”
Interesting, yes. Also, very scary. If Andrew Ross Sorkin is correct, and, judging by the blue-chip investors who contributed to Uber's last round, he is hardly alone in his optimism, Uber is positioned to become one of the most powerful companies in the world. Think about it: a single company that controls the dominant logistics platform in every major city on the planet. A company that is to logistics what Google is to information. That's a company that immediately becomes a major player in the transnational, globalized economy; a company that a pliant Congress ends up crafting legislation specifically for.
Obviously, there are other companies already in the logistics business: UPS and FedEx will not go quietly into the night. But Uber has some huge advantages over those companies; namely, it owns no fleets of trucks or airplanes. Its operating costs are a fraction of those of its competitors. And anyone who has tried out its app is well aware of how well it works. Press a button, and a car appears. Or maybe some takeout sushi. Or someone to pick up the package you need couriered across town. Or -- well, who really knows? Christmas trees? Kittens? True love?
"Uber" is an appropriate name for a company with such built-in grandiosity. But let's stop to think for a second about what we are trading in return for the convenience that Uber undeniably offers. We will be complicit in the creation of yet another massive corporation with immense economic and political influence. A company with such a huge global footprint would find it easy to outflank municipal regulators. Uber already gave us a sign of what it plans to do with its massive treasure chest when it hired a key New York city taxi and limousine regulator to join the company.
Big is not necessarily better when we are talking about the social fabric. An Uber that is worth $18.2 billion -- or more -- is an Uber unaccountable to local pressures, an Uber that, like Facebook, and like Google, knows too much.
And it could easily happen.