Among the tens of thousands of Uber and Lyft vehicles registered to operate in New York City, there’s a 2011 Hyundai Sonata GLS with eight unaddressed safety recalls that range from a potential seat-belt detachment to even more alarming examples, such as possible engine failure.
Millions of riders rely on ride-hailing services Uber and Lyft for daily transportation. But according to a Consumer Reports review of data from New York City and the Seattle area, a notable number of ride-hail vehicles registered for Uber and Lyft service, about 1 in 6, carry unaddressed safety defects.
“Uber and Lyft are letting down their customers and jeopardizing their trust,” says William Wallace, a CR safety policy advocate. “Uber’s website says people can ‘ride with confidence,’ while Lyft promises ‘peace of mind,’ yet both companies fail to ensure that rideshare cars are free from safety defects that could put passengers at risk.”
As Uber and Lyft announced becoming multibillion-dollar IPOs earlier this year, CR decided to check on the safety of the privately owned vehicles that are key to company operations and are now used by more than 100 million consumers.
CR reviewed safety records for about 94,000 vehicles registered as operating for the companies in NYC and King County, Wash. (home to Seattle), two major ride-hailing hubs with local governments that require drivers to register vehicles and obtain an additional license to work through regulators. The CR analysis of the data is meant to provide a snapshot of open safety recalls among ride-hailing cars in the industry, but it might not reflect the national market.
We found vehicles with glaring issues that pose serious risks, such as deadly Takata airbags that could hurt or kill the driver or front-seat passengers. There were unfixed defects involving the potential for vehicles to catch fire or for engines to lose power entirely. For example, one of the 2011 Sonata’s open recall notices says, “Engine failure would result in a vehicle stall, increasing the risk of a crash.”
It’s unclear whether any ride-hail customer or driver has been injured because of an issue related to an open safety recall, and the rate of open recalls we found for registered ride-hail vehicles in our investigation is about the same rate estimated for all vehicles on the road. But as Uber and Lyft aim to transform daily transportation for consumers, they’ve taken only minor steps to ensure their drivers get recalls addressed, CR’s review found. And that could have unintended consequences for the riding public.
CR thinks stronger safety recall laws are needed, especially as Uber and Lyft work to grow their business in the coming years and as other smaller players enter the industry.
Uber and Lyft allow vehicles on their platforms as long as they are legally registered and no more than 10 to 15 years old, depending on the area where they’re located. Local ordinances may be more restrictive, with requirements for a vehicle inspection or for drivers to obtain a legal permit to work. But neither company has a black-and-white policy in place regarding all open recalls.
In response to our questions, Uber and Lyft said they’ve taken a number of steps to address unfixed recalls in vehicles on their platforms. Uber, in particular, says it encourages and reminds drivers to get recalls fixed, and it identifies and blocks vehicles on its platform that have some of the most dangerous open recalls, ones with “DO NOT DRIVE” warnings from the manufacturer or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Those warnings, however, make up only a sliver of all vehicles on the road with unaddressed recalls.
“Uber, Lyft, taxi companies, and anyone offering for-hire rides should check cars for open recalls, and ban any with unrepaired safety defects from picking up passengers,” CR’s Wallace says. “If they won’t do so, states and local governments should make them.”
CR’s review also found that:
- About 1 in 6: Of the 93,958 vehicle identification numbers (VINs) associated with ride-hailing vehicles in New York City and King County, Wash., that CR examined, 15,175, or 16.2 percent, had one or more open safety recalls. (Because ride-hailing drivers can work for more than one company, we grouped results together for vehicles associated with Uber, Lyft, and, for New York, smaller competitors Juno and Via.)
- Takata: A number of vehicles have outstanding recalls associated with numerous deaths, such as faulty airbags made by Japanese car-parts manufacturer Takata. Those airbags have been linked to 24 deaths across the world, including 16 in the U.S., and remain in 1,274 of the vehicles cited in CR’s review, about 1.4 percent of the total.
- Problem vehicles: Some vehicles had a significant number of open safety recalls: 25 vehicles in the Seattle area and NYC had at least five or more unfixed recalls.
- On a par with all private vehicles: The Uber and Lyft vehicles we looked at are about on a par with all personal vehicles on the road. Our analysis also found the open recall rate for some other for-hire vehicle services in NYC to be slightly higher. CR reviewed more than 32,000 VINs affiliated with for-hire vehicles, such as traditional taxis, limos, and liveries, and found the open recall rate for that group to be 23.6 percent.
- Cars older than a decade: The ride-hailing companies both have varying standards for vehicle eligibility, depending on the city or type of service, but there appear to be slips in enforcing the rules. In Seattle, for example, Uber and Lyft currently say vehicles should be no more than a decade old. But CR’s review of records from King County found more than 40 cars licensed to operate there with a listed vehicle model year of 2007 or older. Uber says under King County regulations enacted in March, permits will no longer be issued to drivers with vehicles more than a decade old. Lyft says it considers any vehicle with a current window decal that’s legally needed to drive as valid to operate on its platform.
- Onus on drivers: Uber and Lyft take only minor steps to ensure open recalls are addressed, leaving the onus primarily on drivers.
Ride-hail companies conduct their operations through intuitive smartphone apps that allow customers to quickly request nearby vehicles to come and pick them up. The fare amount is predetermined based on the pickup spot and destination requested, as well as consumer demand. The service is meant to be a quick and easy transaction.
To get a snapshot of the industry’s open recall rate, CR obtained VINs for ride-share vehicles operating in NYC and King County, Wash., as of January this year. VIN data for drivers in the industry are scarce, but NYC and King County produced them in an online database and in response to a public records request, respectively. With the numbers, we were able to track down which vehicles had unaddressed recalls, in the same way any consumer can check on their own vehicle or a used car they might want to buy.
We processed the VINs through a tool that checks to see whether a car still has an open recall. The tool was developed by Carfax, which allows consumers to monitor whether their car has an open recall either through their website or, if hailing a ride through Uber or Lyft, on an app called myCarfax.
Consumer advocates say Uber and Lyft, with their billion-dollar valuations and technological prowess, can—and should—do far more to ensure consumers are kept safe, and reduce the open recall rate. For example, some advocates point out that Uber and Lyft could use VINs to identify and ban vehicles with open recalls from operating on their platforms.
“Uber and Lyft have the ability to have zero recalled cars on their platforms at the push of a button,” says Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. “They both claim to be technology companies yet refuse to use that technology to take this obvious step to decrease the danger from unrepaired recalls on their drivers and customers.”
Uber and Lyft launched initial public offerings this year to sell shares on Wall Street, even as they faced criticism about the economic feasibility of their business models and labor conditions for their drivers. The ride-share platforms—Uber and Lyft are by far the biggest in the U.S.—rely on contract workers using their private vehicles, a largely unregulated relationship.
There are risks to their gameplan. The profits may never materialize, for one thing, and the model itself is predicated on a host of what-if scenarios, including the potential liability both can face with issues such as car crashes. Uber, for example, made clear to prospective investors in its filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission that it may be subject to “claims of significant liability based on traffic accidents, deaths, injuries, or other incidents.”
What the Companies Say
Uber and Lyft representatives told CR in written statements that a number of initiatives are in place to encourage drivers to address recalls.
Uber says it recognizes the role it can play “in helping keep the roads safe for everyone.”
“As part of our commitment, we’re proactively blocking vehicles with open recalls that include a ‘Do Not Drive’ notice from the manufacturer or NHTSA from the app until they have taken action on their vehicle,” an Uber spokesperson tells CR.
Uber regularly reminds drivers and provides resources to check their vehicles for open recalls, the company says, and it participates in the NHTSA biannual campaign to raise awareness about getting recalls fixed.
Lyft told CR that it works with lawmakers and regulators, including local elected officials, to create rules and regulations around vehicle safety. Lyft added that by using personal vehicles, drivers are representing that their vehicles meet industry safety standards and legal requirements.
“Lyft drivers use their personal vehicles to drive on the platform—the same car they use in their daily lives, driving their kids to school or friends around town,” Lyft says in a statement. “Drivers have a strong personal incentive to make sure their car is in a safe operating condition.”
Ride-share drivers do have the option to work for multiple companies. In King County, drivers who meet the requirements for a Transportation Network Company license can currently drive for four companies—Uber, Lyft, and smaller competitors Moovn and Wingz. (CR’s public records request from King County covered only drivers who registered for a license to drive with an affiliation to Uber or Lyft, which represents a majority of licensed drivers in the area.)
It’s slightly more complicated in NYC. Drivers there have a TLC license issued by the Taxi and Limousine Commission, which acts like a “universal” license, meaning the drivers can work within several transit sectors, including black car services and even traditional cabs, says Allan Fromberg, deputy commissioner for public affairs at the NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission, which regulates for-hire vehicles in the city.
CR’s analysis of NYC vehicles included VINs associated with Uber, Lyft, and two of their smaller competitors in the city, Via and Juno. The VINs and owners are published on the city’s Open Data website.
One of the vehicles CR reviewed in the Seattle area is a 2011 Ford Fusion SE, which records show has five open recalls, including an unfixed Takata airbag. It’s not unusual for a passenger to sit up front if they’re using one of the companies’ lower-cost shared-ride options—Uber Pool or Lyft Line.
“If an Uber or Lyft car is under recall for a faulty Takata airbag on the passenger side and this safety defect hasn’t been fixed, then a passenger would be taking on significant risk sitting in the front seat,” CR’s Wallace says. “Defective Takata airbags have killed people when they explode with excessive force, sending shrapnel into the cabin of the car.”
Federal and state regulations offer little official guidance for ride-hailing companies related to open recalls.
Federal auto safety regulator NHTSA has the power to order a recall, but it doesn’t have direct oversight of Uber and Lyft, only the manufacturers of vehicles operating on the ride-hailing networks. California recently passed a law that requires startups that provide a market for “peer-to-peer” car rentals, such as Turo and Getaround, to check for recalls. But the law doesn’t apply to ride-hailing companies, such as Uber and Lyft.
“The new law benefits not only the consumers who drive the cars they find on those platforms but also the vehicle owners, who too often don’t get the safety recall notices from the manufacturers, and may be totally unaware their car is unsafe and needs to be repaired,” says Rosemary Shahan, president of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, a national watchdog group based in California that supported the legislation.
“Uber and Lyft would be wise to adopt the same practices the rental car companies have adopted nationally, and Turo and Getaround have adopted in California, rather than waiting for a high-profile tragedy to occur before they screen out vehicles with unrepaired safety recalls,” she says.
NYC yellow cabs are required to pass three inspections each year in order to operate on the road, but that doesn’t include a check for safety recalls. Same goes for vehicles that are certified to receive a “for-hire vehicle” license, which includes Uber and Lyft drivers. They’re also required to receive three inspections by New York state, but not a check for open recalls.
“We’ve been checking for open recalls, but administratively and not as a part of the vehicle inspection process,” says Fromberg, the deputy commissioner for public affairs at the NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission.
Drivers have a balancing act of sorts to consider when it comes to their vehicles: safety, of course, but also their bottom line. Aleksey Medvedovskiy, president of NYC Taxi Group, a fleet of cabs based in Brooklyn, says that he wants to “make sure our cars are working nonstop.”
“We don’t necessarily bring the car into the dealer to get it fixed,” Medvedovskiy says. “We check through the website, we check what open bulletins they have … If the vehicle gets to a dealer, it can sit there for days until it gets back on the road, and that’s what we don’t want.”
If it’s a major issue, such as a faulty brake pump, the vehicles are brought into the dealer to address the recall with the manufacturer, he says. But if a transmission breaks or there’s a problem with the tire wall, it’s easier to bring it into the taxi company’s repair shop.
“We fix them as we go,” he says. But if they consider the recall to be a safety defect, he says, they “react instantly.”
The situation for taxi drivers who own their cabs is similar to those who drive for Uber and Lyft: They receive recall notices; they have to get cars fixed on their own.
“Inspections are the responsibility of the vehicle’s owner or lessee, in the case of long-term leases and lease-to-own agreements, a category that includes many Uber/Lyft drivers,” Fromberg says. Recalls are the responsibility of owners, too, he says.
A Lack of Information
In many cities where Uber and Lyft operate, the companies ask for standard information—driver’s license and insurance, records of a vehicle inspection—for drivers to sign up. Some municipalities go further and require a permit or business license for drivers to operate, such as in Los Angeles or Clark County, Nev.
NYC publishes a continuously updated list of ride-hailing affiliated VINs on its Open Data website, and King County made a list of VINs for active Uber and Lyft drivers available to CR in response to a public records request. The City of Chicago, however, denied CR’s request for VINs, citing privacy laws and arguments made by Uber and Lyft.
In a letter dated Dec. 28, 2018, Lyft said that disclosure of VINs would violate the privacy of drivers and claimed that it possesses “significant” economic value in keeping them secret.
“If Lyft’s driver information is disclosed, a competitor could enter the market, or increase its market share, without substantial development by ‘free-riding’ on Lyft’s driver list,” the letter said.
Chicago agreed, saying that “proprietary information that would cause competitive harm is exempt from production.”
What Consumers Can Do
If consumers want to stay apprised of whether the ride-hail car they call to pick them up has a safety defect, one solution is to download the myCarfax app.
Once an Uber or Lyft rider is connected with a driver, they’ll receive details about the driver’s car, including the license plate number. From there, they can open myCarfax and punch in the license plate number of the vehicle, which then immediately reveals whether or not it has an open safety recall.