TED 2016: Uber and AirBnB insist it is good to share

The bosses of two of the most talked-about technology companies – Uber and AirBnB – have defended the “sharing economy” at TED conference talks.

Both firms are under scrutiny from governments around the world over concerns about how they operate.

Joe Gebbia, head of AirBnB, and Travis Kalanick, Uber’s boss, were keen to play up the benefits of their disruptive models of commerce.

Sharing cars and homes offered great benefits to communities, they said.

Joe Gebbia, founder of AirBnB – an online service enabling travellers to rent private homes instead of staying in hotels – began by asking the TED audience in Vancouver to unlock their phones and hand them to those sitting next to them.

“That sense of panic you are feeling right now is how a host feels the first time they open their home to a stranger,” he said.

AirBnB had succeeded, he said, because it was “designed for trust”.

He explained that his own first hosting experience was full of distrust, as he feared that the stranger he had invited to spend the night on an airbed in his living room might kidnap him.

“I lay in bed staring at the ceiling, thinking there is a complete stranger in my living room – what if he is psychotic?”

Human connections

A few years later when Mr Gebbia moved to San Francisco, he took the airbed with him and realised that he could not only make new friends but also help pay the rent.

“The sharing economy is about commerce but it is also about human connections,” he said.

The reputation system that allows hosts and guests to rate each other had been a huge factor in its success, said Mr Gebbia.

He said on any given night 785,000 people were either staying in a stranger’s house or welcoming one into their home.

However, trust in AirBnB does not extend to the hotel industry, from which the firm is facing increased pressure.

Last year it spent millions of dollars fighting the introduction of tougher laws for people who allow others to rent their homes in San Francisco.

Recently the firm also angered some of its hosts by delisting them with no explanation.

Jitney buses

Uber, an app-based booking service for private-hire cars which is not yet available in Vancouver, was described by TED curator Chris Anderson as one of the “most controversial companies on the planet”.

He invited its founder, Travis Kalanick, to explain whether he was, as some have suggested, “an evil genius”.

Image copyright TED
Image caption Travis Kalanick compared Uber to a turn-of-the-century cab service

Mr Kalanick declined to discuss himself, but focused instead on two of Uber’s newer services – UberPool and UberCommute.

Both could play a crucial role in freeing up the roads, offering thousands of people the opportunity to participate in car pools, he said.

UberCommute, which links commuters with neighbours who need lifts, was rolled out in China last September but was being restricted in the US because of rules that prevent drivers being paid more than 54 cents per mile, said Mr Kalanick.

He compared Uber and its history of rows with city regulators to a service that had rolled out early last century.

So-called Jitney buses started appearing in US cities in 1914, offering lifts for a nickel (five cents) a ride.

By 1919 they had been “regulated out of existence” he said.

“It goes back to the lesson of the Jitney. If they had not been taken off the roads would cities now have parks instead of parking lots?” he asked.

Uber is facing scrutiny from regulators around the world as well as threats from drivers who want increased employment rights.