Why Uber Will Never Reach The Moon

By Andrej Mrevlje |

I got myself a $70 haircut across the street at Immortal Beloved, where Michelle Obama used to get hers. As it should be, the men’s barber is in the basement, and at first, I did not like the place. Then my splendid wife, who occasionally uses the upper floor of the salon, told me to try them out. I went across the street and inside, but had to come back a couple of hours later, because in every uppity hair salon there is no such a thing as a walk-in. You’ve got to make an appointment.

My hairdresser was young. He didn’t talk much but, robust as he was, with a baseball hat, long black beard, army pants, he somehow did not fit the place. He said he’d wanted to do something more peaceful after being in Fallujah. We said a few more words, about his daughter, the divorce, how he gave all his money from the army to his daughter. He is clean now, learned this new job. It was the first time in my life that I almost fall asleep while seated for a haircut. It was unusually relaxing, practically moving. What miracles humankind can produce. He went to kill when he was 17, and now, as my wife told me, he cut my hair perfectly. Washington D.C. is a thrilling city.

So the hair was done. Then I put a new shirt on, a blazer and my favorite boots. I was ready. Finally, I went to clean our car a bit more. It was a ritual, my way of saying goodbye to Uber.

You may look back at my reports from behind the wheel (here, here, here and here ) to understand why driving for Uber was exciting, fun, and something new to do. The challenge of a change of lifestyle, constant engagement, a need to reinvent me whenever I got stuck in a cul de sac. I never kept a diary to write, but I did drive to write. It was not always easy; the gig economy is not as flashy as it appears to be, not a smooth glide through life. But it is thrilling.

When you drive someone sitting in the back seat of your car, the responsibility is enormous. The pressure is there, the tension and the stress. It comes with a blind spot, or poorly designed and indicated streets, bad drivers on the roads, or pedestrians who in D.C. have absolute hegemony. Most of all, however, there are the passengers, the riders as Uber calls them. They can defy you, observe you, treat you like an app or even love you. Rarely is there a deep understanding of the value of silence, though, when you are allowed to drive as you want and the person in the car is on his own. That kind of silence is golden.

And yet, you can only feel immortal and beloved when you drive alone. There is nothing better than a long distance, a solo drive from D.C. to New York and back, from dawn to dusk, with the music you love. After the stop and go driving across D.C. and beyond for Uber, one needs to step into the floating river again. Even the car needs a longer run.

On the whole, I drove Uber for ten months. Usually, I’d drive two to three days a week, just a few hours a day. There would be a week, perhaps even two in a row, that I did not feel like sitting behind the wheel. Or I was traveling, working, just too busy. So it hasn’t been an overdose of driving, but in a gig economy, ten months is a long period, an economic cycle in which the tech companies can be earning or losing billions of dollars. You can feel the volatility of this business as they continuously change the rules.

During the last few months, Uber was cutting the payments, increasing their fees, sometimes taking from drivers more than fifty percent. It started with a new and incomprehensible payment system. It needed a lot of decoding to understand what the virtual earning was, and the cash Uber deposited into your account. They replaced the clear-cut weekly payment into partial transfers of money, always owing you something. It was not rocket science, but one needed experience bookkeeping to understand how much was actually earned. It was against all the principles of the gig economy, and the Uber calculus was similar to those incomprehensible statements of a bank account: With no transparency or explanation, the answer was posed to make you feel like a moron. In the end, you became one, because most of the time you give up trying to understand their Kafkian tricks.

By delaying the payments of millions of drivers for a few days, dividing them into weeks and days, were they creating the surge of bank interest? Is the profit margin so significant that they are prepared to risk a riot? I contributed to the outrage with my complaints that Uber was not transparent or helpful to us as drivers. They went back to the original payment method. Then, greedy for more traffic, they imposed on drivers to accept Uber pools, to which they sneaked in a formula of Express Pool.

In this piece, I described the malfunctioning of this formula, which naturally brings more traffic for Uber but put drivers in awkward and even dangerous situations. The most dysfunctional part of pool express is the absence of an exact pickup address. The driver gets a vague location indication on the app, and the rider receives one with the car description and plate number. To pay less, the rider is supposed to walk towards the car and make her or himself known. It almost never happens smoothly because, in urging more passengers and increasing business, Uber never cared to instruct the passengers how to earn their cheap ride, frustrating all parties involved.

I was one of those drivers who hardly canceled a trip (throwing away the possibility for a story), but I was often involved in difficulties relating to the ineffective Uber algorithm and its poorly chosen meeting spots. There would be a traffic road, construction site, works on the road, or unforeseen circumstances of a wide variety. It’s risky to stop in the middle of the road, making oneself an obstacle to traffic while trying to identify a nondescript passenger. It normally ends in phoning and trying to locate each other, with most of the riders showing no talent for scouting. Because there is this myth that Uber is an app that should work perfectly and without a glitch, a speaking driver is himself a kind of glitch, for the very young passengers at least.

The biggest change for Uber in D.C. was the one-month government shutdown. The number of people using gig transport dropped drastically. There were about 300,000 fewer federal employees coming to D.C. All museums, galleries and concert halls closed, the restaurants depending on them closed, and the capital was devoid of its regular visitors, its regular life. It was cold and snowy too, and Uber went berserk.  Never before were their text messages to drivers about the promotion’s plans. There are a lot now; Uber is trying to get us on the road.

I take Uber occasionally and speak to the drivers. They are thinking of abandoning ship because of lower and lower earnings. My wife, listening to my stories, corroborates them in conversations with her Uber drivers. We are part of the debate, striking a match against its box, but I have no desire to unionize the drivers. The gig economy should not be for the precarious–it was moving to see the furloughed people starting driving the Uber–but it should be innovative. Instead, it began to lag.  

I was a very active driver, and even though it was hard to reach them with questions unrelated to strictly day-to-day issues, I managed to get some messages through. As I said, I never met an Uber manager or anyone who is in a position to decide or influence or listen. There is the help-line to call, but all the operators sit in some overseas country, and have never been in the U.S. and, even more unlikely, drove for Uber. One could spend hours on the phone with them without resolving anything. There is no tech service for frequent problems with their navigation system.

I also wrote to Uber to explain how sometimes it takes more than half of the drivers’ earnings. It went back and forth for a while and then a final answer:


A message from Uber

Hi Andrej,

The booking fee is a fixed amount for each trip, but the service fee is a variable amount that reflects the difference between what the rider paid and your earnings. Sometimes the difference between a rider’s payment and your earnings is high and sometimes it’s low, but it averages out over time.

The service fee helps us maintain and make continuous investments to enhance our technology. It covers improvements such as new app features, helps cover costs for marketing and payment processing for drivers, and enables 24/7 phone support, in-app support, and in-person support at our Greenlight Hubs.

The booking fee helps cover our regulatory, safety, and operational costs, including insurance protection for you and riders on every trip.

You can learn more about how earnings are calculated here, and service fees here.

The result of this dry reply is that Uber is free to take whatever it wants from your earnings because it needs to update its technology, do marketing research, pay phone support, develop its app and so on. I remember when Mario Batali, then-famous chef and restaurant owner in New York, now shunned for allegations of a pattern of sexual assault, did something similar. He started taking part in the tips of his waiters, presumably to cover the cost of wine research and new glasses. They sued him, and he had to pay them back in millions.

The Uber app needs improvement; almost no driver uses it for navigation. It is an obsolete software that will not take Uber to the moon. Ever. Higher charges for riders and lower income for drivers brings greed to the forefront, killing the conversation in the car. I have no intention of explaining Uber’s policy to its riders. Nor do the riders want to discuss it. The discussion should be about something else, not suspicion, but connection. I have no desire to serve as a cover-up for the incomprehension of an invisible Uber management, a deep crack created between riders and drivers. Because drivers are the only people who can be identified with the Uber brand, I cannot take responsibility for bad leadership. I am taking leave because of the lack of conversation. Can it be improved? I doubt it because my impression is, Uber no longer cares to improve anything.

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