Uber here…

Feature a Cmax Energi with performance characteristics of a Mini, scooting down I-5 south of the bend on the kind of clear December night you best appreciate on Mt. Soledad. Zipping under 54 and succeeding strange green signs announcing, H Street, and so on. In and driving it is Michael Winn, known to some as Uberman, not because he was more fond of Zarathustra than of Karl Marx, nor because of his occupation (Uber driving) but in consequence of his ill fit for the distinction, man. Heterosexual in appetite but his mind worked more like a woman’s than a normal man’s.

Waiting for a rider on Florence Street, he observed lights in streets and houses on hills in Mexico, the next neighborhood, looking south, if you don’t count a 30 meter high fence that people go around if they need to leave one and enter the other. At the hole in the fence, called, San Ysidro there’s a bridge over the line in the sand.

–You’re here already? I’ll be right down.

–Yes, thank you. Sky blue Ford, hazard lights on, can’t miss it.

img_1352Of course, I’m prompt. Drivers arrive quickly because Uber and Lyft enroll  drivers with cash incentives and not a lot of discernment beyond felony check and driving record. Riders benefit from an excess of drivers but drivers compete for scarce business because the cash incentives for drivers doesn’t increase numbers of riders.

Drivers are a representative cross section of the lower economic strata of median incomes around the city. Riders are a little better off than drivers given they don’t have to Uber to pay the rent and they don’t work 6 to 7 days, 10 to 12 hours a day to clear more than minimum wage after paying for car and gas, nor do they have Uber web content that blows smoke up their asses while Uber takes 25% of every fare. With the rates Uber set for this city, a full time Uber driver with the highest performance ratings is lucky to net 25% of fares because the fare are far below what the market will pay. Lyft and Uber seem like childish corporate entities. Ridershare companies need to cooperate in the same way as airlines. Since all rideshare companies have the same business model and costs, drivers, whom Uber calls “partners,” would have to set the standard.

The market will eventually migrate to higher value experience, not based solely on the quality of the vehicle but also, of the driver.

On the rider’s side, about a third use corporate accounts. They Uber or Lyft as an alternative to driving and parking, airport shuttles, rent cars and taxis in short rides between the airport and hotels. Many older out-patients of Kaiser and UCSD Uber instead of taxis for medical appointments and shopping because taxis cost 3x as much for the same service. The taxi is accumulating social status, the reverse of public transit stigma. Did you Uber? Hell no, I taxied! But it’s not that easy, there are other factors:

Because we live in a community of 4+ million souls (counting Baja) and Uber drivers can roam without boundaries, drivers are often new to communities in which they find themselves and very new to the customs and sensibilities of riders that show up in our cars. Many drivers are unable to carry on a conversation in an intimate space with strangers, nor are they able to make their cabins a comfortable container for authentic communication. They know little or nothing about communities they pass through and, with their attention on a computer generated voice telling them where to turn, even when they are curious and want to connect with others, they are unable to be present to another let alone a group.

Three angels.

To make money we go where riders take us and more often than not, these are places  we’ve never seen so if we don’t have our heads in a computer brain, driving and the people we meet are fascinating. Every humans being we encounter in and outside the car is awake and aware to something and often, when a rider gets into the car, their heads are in other places. Some say, “how’s your day going?” Some are actually talking on a cell phone as they enter your car and don’t even bother to acknowledge your presence, sometimes because their attention is on making sure they are not cheated. (In most cases, the distrust stems from an experience when a navigation app sends drivers on inefficient routes, not because drivers who don’t know where they’re going, intentionally extend a journey.)

The culture of ridesharing is more like that of a trolley or city bus in a small town, rather than a professional taxi. Riders sometimes treat their drivers like chauffeurs, which works as long as they tip the driver and pay them the respect a good chauffeur is due. The driver’s job isn’t like a taxi driver’s. It has some qualities of a concierge, doorman, personal assistant, interested, non-judgmental listener; a caring person. Riders show appreciation for generous and caring drivers with gratuities. As a group, Lyft and Uber drivers are by no means sophisticated  or conscious as in any profession; some are shrinking violets, highly judgmental, passive aggressive, sullen.

The characters portrayed in Uber’s and Lyft’s ads for drivers feature the immediate cash rewards. The ads don’t reveal we’re at the mercy of priorities of a computer program that doesn’t include concern for either our our community’s success, nor even best interests of riders. It’s as ruthless as the risk analysis of an insurance company.

On the other hand, my prompt arrival and attention to the rider’s transportation, safety and comfort reflect a professional commitment behind my performance; a matter of heart.

–Hi, I’m Rachel.

–Hi, Rachel, I’m Michael, welcome to my ride.  Where are we going?

<iframe width="100%" height="450" scrolling="no" frameborder="no" src="https://w.soundcloud.com/player/?url=https%3A//api.soundcloud.com/tracks/294765872&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true"></iframe>
I’m Rachel!

–I think I put it on the app.

–The app usually mis-identifies the location of riders and plots inefficient routes. (I read the address the rider input to the rider to make sure it’s correct. I check out the route the app suggests.)

–The app shows 163, through the park. 163 is jammed southbound. We should go 805 to 94,

–You’re right. I trust you, whatever you say.

–Let me know when you know something. I learn a lot from riders. It’s a jungle out there.


–How long have you been driving Uber?

–I’m a veteran; at least six weeks.

–(More laughter) What do you think about it?

I’m having more fun Ubering than any thing I’ve done for money. The ridesharing app is a true technology. Uber and Lyft, however, are not responsible businesses by modern standards. Not since the 19th century has a private enterprise flagrantly avoided statutory required conditions of employment. Uber and Lyft drivers are employees in a practical and economic sense but not on paper. Drivers not only pay for personal clothing and health maintenance, they also cover all the costs of assets they use. We have no sick leave or vacation time, no regular breaks, no dependable salary, no retirement, medical insurance, no Workmens Compensation.

Driver have none of the protections trade unions struggled to create during the 20th century following the great depression. When a driver is ill, pregnant or if her car breaks, she’s without an income. If she’s robbed or assaulted on the job, she’s on her own. Drivers cover the monthly cost of high bandwidth cell service, required for the GPS navigator. And, by over-subscribing drivers and inducing ridership with fares that are far too low, competitiveness arises between drivers, rather than cooperation. The program  can send call requests preferentially, for instance to drivers of cars that Uber rents to drivers who have no credit (at inflated rates). Then, by telling riders not to tip drivers and telling drivers not to accept tips, Uber puts a negative cast on normal human generosity.

img_0342 img_0342 img_0342

Hi, I'm Michael, your Uber driver.
Hi, I’m Michael, your Uber driver.

All the physical assets of Uber are owned and maintained by drivers. Uber is a set of algorithms riders use to reach drivers and pay for rides. Uber seems friendly; calling drivers, “partners” but the 25% Uber takes from every fare, the fact that drivers have no ownership in the business and cash-incentive driver invitation program reveals the extent of thought Uber has given to drivers in its business plan.

Lyn (Anne Bancroft) to Jed (Richard Widmark) "It's over."
Lyn (Anne Bancroft) to Jed (Richard Widmark) “It’s over.”

Uber drivers can make more money getting others to drive than we earn driving. An Uber driver that delivers a new driver to Uber gets a $200 to $500 bonus after the new driver’s 75th trip. Inviting people to drive pays better than giving rides and costs inviters nothing.   Uber offers to rent a car to new drivers for $250/week, an amount that is deducted from their earnings before the driver gets her share. A leasing program costs the driver a little less, closer to $180 per week. Uber gives drivers a credit card for gasoline, also repaid to Uber from the driver’s earnings before the driver is paid.  Uber guarantees new drivers will earn $750 to $1000 from the first 75 fares; Uber pays the difference between whatever the drivers earns from 75 rides and $1000. This calculation includes the $250 Uber gets for the car, of course. Since call requests do not go out to the closest driver, nor to the first in line at the airport, Uber’s algorithms can send call requests to drivers who are renting cars from Uber and/or to those whom Uber has guaranteed $1000.

It is ironic that Uber calls its drivers, partners. Since drivers own or pay rent for all the assets used to provide ride services, there is in this sense some truth to this. But drivers are not sharing in the equity of the business in which they are investing; they own no shares in the company yet their investment of time and money in the value of the company is cumulatively immense.

caught by the hat

We would really be partners if we earned shares of stock in return for our investment of  time, energy and money.  By calling us partners, Uber misrepresents our position to manipulate judgment. Uber appeals to our desire for self-sufficiency with its invitation to “be your own boss” and “work when you want to”. Of course, This sounds great to new drivers and then after we see the first Ponzi-like windfall of cash incentives, then we see how in reality we’re grist for the mill yet at this point, there’s nothing we can do but work ten to 16 hour days. Perhaps, an organized strike of drivers would force Uber to negotiate fairly with drivers, however, the cash enrollment incentives defends against organization by rapidly adding drivers.

There are some real issues about which Uber has been and is now the subject of class action law suits brought by drivers: Riders and drivers anticipate that the Uber App is programmed to send riders requests to the closest driver.  I’ve tested this several times in denser parts of the city, and ride requests went not to the car the rider stood a few yards from, but to drivers blocks distant. Uber explained that a rider has to be a little further from the car, as a measure to prevent fraud, however, sometimes the request does come to me when I’m close by and sometimes it doesn’t?  The methodology of the call routing priorities isn’t shown to drivers.  Uber acknowledges that the call system and airport queue is manipulated in an attempt to distribute requests to all drivers even when they aren’t the closest car or the first in line at the airport. However,  some call requests are more rewarding than others and the priorities for assigning requests of different values isn’t known.

Recently, drivers got an email from the Uber Fuhrer, telling us that the system may now redirect us to a new rider, while enroute to a call request we’d accepted. This practice eliminates the driver’s choice in accepting or not accepting call requests. While this manipulation of call requests is at least suspicious, changing rider requests enroute assumes  that drivers can operate robotically, while in complex traffic situations and while it can take a driver to a closer rider,  taking a driver’s attention away from road conditions or asking us to blindly follow instructions of a GPS app, which is often errant,  while enroute to a call can be dangerous.

Drivers are subsidizing Lyft and Uber’s unrealistically low fares, in some cases, Uber is competing with city buses and the pool fare is competitive with public transit. While this is an important service for the community, why should it be subsidized by drivers? Uber’s percentage of each fare (25%) should pay for promotion, rather than the drivers who bear the cost of “pool” fares. This particular subsidy builds Uber’s prominence in the market place. Perhaps, if drivers earned shares in Uber equivalent to amounts Uber receives from its 25% of pool fares, drivers would be made whole. Our contribution to this subsidy is real not rhetorical. Uber takes 25% whether or not a trip is cost-effective. My fare from a pool ride from the international airport to a hotel downtown was $1.80.

With Uber’s aggressive enrollment of drivers and inflated charges for rental cars for new drivers, the drivers’ earnings  decline to below minimum wage after covering the cost of car, insurance, fuel, maintenance, depreciation, health insurance, social security, unemployment and disability insurance, savings for illness and vacations, i.e., all benefits won by labor unions during the 20th century. Uber drivers, by declaring themselves as self-employed, forfeit these benefits, enticed by Uber’s marketing which calls us partners and entrepreneurs, and by the experience of desperately needed pre-tax cash in the hands of under-employed and unemployed people; money needed to pay for food and rent.

Yesterday, I drove a couple from the airport through a half hour of freeway traffic in the rain. When we arrived at Manchester Hyatt, a luxury hotel where they were staying, the father/husband rushed to the trunk of my car to get his bags out before I could help because, in his mind, this would obligate him to tip me.  He then hands the bags to the doorman at the hotel, and gives him $2.  I earned $3 for the trip because the man had ordered Uber Pool.

The Uber Pool service works very well in Southern California for students and low wage riders but its often a loss for drivers, depending on how the pool works: whether another rider joins the pool and the length of the trip in which there’s more than one rider. I have yet to encounter a pool rider who chooses the pool fare because of their commitment to the environment. They ask for a pool to reduce the fare knowing that, in most cases, they will ride alone. Riders request a pool fare when privacy isn’t a concern because cheaper than the standard fare which is a fifth of the cost of a taxi and less than an airport shuttle. The pool fare isn’t a lot more than a city bus charges for many trips. It’s nonsense to imagine that it works for drivers.

In the UberPool service, Uber sends a request to a driver and then the computer tries to find another rider along the route set by the first rider. If the computer finds a match, the driver veers from this route to pick up and deliver rider 2 before or after delivering rider 1. Often a second rider is not found and the driver eats the discount. At other times, the second rider is far off course and the driver eats the cost of collecting the second rider. After one of the riders is dropped off, the system can add another second rider. According to Zeno’s law, potentially, the first rider might never arrive at their destination but in reality, in this market, the pool rider rides alone.

Why does Uber tell the world they shouldn’t tip drivers? (Lyft doesn’t do this.) Some riders, for instance, adolescents don’t have the money and they’re riding on a parent’s credit card. Most riders are habitually ungenerous and the system doesn’t allow drivers enough time to evaluate riders before accepting a request.   A dollar or two from riders who work cleaning hotels or clerking at Walmart feels precious to me. I’ve given my tips to homeless people I pass on the road and to other drivers and hotel door men, a campaign to seed generosity in my world, which a materialist would call insane.

Uber isn’t capable of generosity, it’s a computer program and its perfection envisions driverless cars. The system attempts to manipulate drivers as if we are machines, perhaps in anticipation of future  robotic cars that render drivers unnecessary. It’s an illogical idea. In the first place, franchises of robotic car owners couldn’t take advantage of existing assets. All the cars would have to be purchased and maintained by the franchise. Uber is an effective public transit in Southern California because it is a technology that uses cars and existing drivers. Besides that, the business is based on drivers using a software program, not the other way around.

Transportation wanks undervalue the social aspect although Uber’s marketing exploits it: Riders and drivers are both randomly connecting with other human beings and in doing so, they are discovering their own humanity and the perspectives of others. A typical public expectation about Uber’s drivers is still in formulation. Riders do not know what to expect but they are learning to treat drivers with respect because, that is the way drivers treat riders–as peers. This isn’t the dynamic with taxis. Yet, I hesitate to suggest to others that they should become Uber drivers because driving for long periods in traffic is stressful. The driver’s mind is forced to stay alert to things constantly moving around the car, it’s similar to conditions described to me by someone  deployed in Iraq.

One night last week, after driving for ten hours, returning home, I threw my tips out the window in disgust. The feeling was worth it and I don’t miss the money. If I’d refused the money as I wanted to, the rider would likely have penalized me with a low rating.

In last night’s commuter traffic on I-5, i drove a marine from SAN to his apartment deep in Pendleton, It was like driving into Palm Desert fifty years ago. He told me about being on patrol and some of his buddies including some that died. His military dialect and manner of speaking were as perfectly performed as if he’d trained to talk the way he did. (James Joyce) got this.

Human beings connect with others in Ubers, taxis, elevators, trains and airliners. In all these experiences, there’s a stress-inducing element, an element of risk and relatively small physical space. A survey might show people choose Uber over taxis for economic reasons, however, my riders have told me they have been surprised to find that Uber drivers lifted their spirits, while taxis hadn’t. Affordability. yes. But when riders enjoy being in the company of Uber drivers, that experience is as important as the cost savings. The computer program that drivers and riders use to connect is necessary but the least important contribution to the uber experience. Technology is necessary to make ridesharing possible but drivers will ultimately shape and the business.