Uber knowingly leased hundreds of defective, recalled Honda Vezel SUVs to its drivers in Singapore that were at risk of catching fire, the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday (3 August). The model had been recalled by Honda Motor Co in April 2016 due to an electrical component at risk of overheating and catching fire.
Citing internal emails, documents and emails familiar with Uber's operators, the WSJ reported that Uber's Singapore unit bought over 1,000 defective Vezels that were not repaired and rented them out to drivers through its affiliate car-leasing company Lion City Rental, despite being aware of the Honda recall.
In January, a fire broke out in an Uber driver's car in Singapore just after he had dropped off a passenger. The flames that burst from the dashboard melted the interior and left a football-sized hole in the windshield. The driver, Koh Seng Tian, was left unhurt in the accident that was filed with local authorities.
Days after the incident, Uber executives in the ride-hailing company's San Francisco headquarters were informed on a response plan that involved deactivating the faulty devices in the vehicles. However, the cars were allowed to remain on the road while Uber waited for replacement parts.
Uber would also seek approval from Singapore authorities and advice from auto repair experts under the plan, WSJ reported. The affected drivers were told by the company that their Vezels required "immediate precautionary servicing" four days after the incident and needed to be seen the same week.
"The recall was done in a hush-hush affair," Alexander Yudhistira, a 31-year-old former Uber driver who had rented a defective Vezel, said. "Drivers weren't told about the real issue behind the Vezel."
Uber's lawyers also assessed possible legal liabilities as well including possible violation of driver contracts, WSJ reported.
One internal report read: "There is clearly a large safety/responsible actor/brand integrity/PR issue" for the company.
In other emails to Uber, Honda said it was not liable for Vezels purchased through smaller car importers as opposed to authorised Honda dealers in Singapore. Uber acknowledged in the exchanges that Honda was not legally required to do the repairs.
An Uber spokesperson said in a statement: "As soon as we learned of a Honda Vezel from the Lion City Rental fleet catching fire, we took swift action to fix the problem, in close coordination with Singapore's Land Transport Authority as well as technical experts. But we acknowledge we could have done more — and we have done so.
"We've introduced robust protocols and hired three dedicated experts in-house at LCR whose sole job is to ensure we are fully responsive to safety recalls."
Uber added that it has responded to six vehicle recalls since the beginning of the year and will "continue to do so to protect the safety of everyone who uses Uber."
The latest incident comes after Uber has been rocked by several controversies since the beginning of the year. Accusations of sexual harassment and a toxic work culture, a high-profile lawsuit with Google's Waymo over self-driving technology and revelations of secret software to thwart law enforcement and rivals among other issues eventually culminated in the resignation of CEO and founder Travis Kalanick in June.