In the midst of a hostage situation in downtown Sydney, Australia, Ayn Rand’s favorite car service, Uber, turned on its wildly expensive surge pricing for customers trying to get away from the armed siege. And lest you think this was the fault of an insensitive algorithm that detected high demand, the company tweeted that it was aware of the attack and had raised prices for the fleeing people’s own good.
The company was later shamed into apologizing, and offered free rides in the area and refunds to anyone who paid the surge fees of $100-$200 to escape the area where a gunman had taken over a café.
Uber’s argument for surge pricing has always been that the additional money incentivizes more Uber drivers to get on the road during periods of high demand when they would normally want to avoid bad traffic, weather, or, apparently, armed standoffs.
That makes total sense, if you assume the only people Uber cares about serving during emergencies or on high-traffic holidays are those who can afford 4 times your typical rate. The company’s reliance on the invisible hand of the market was especially galling during Hurricane Sandy, and that backlash resulted in a national policy, pushed hard by New York’s attorney general, of laying off the surge pricing during natural disasters.
But that policy doesn’t extend to Australia, where the only thing restricting Uber prices during a crisis is the inevitable bad PR and public apology.