15 Dec 2017

My month as an Uber driver

10:40 am on 20 December 2017

What's it really like to be an Uber driver? RNZ's Simon Morton went undercover to find out.

What would you rate this driver?

 Would you give him 5 stars? Photo: Supplied


Simon talks to Kim Hill about becoming a driver, what he earned, picking up passengers – and passengers trying to pick him up here.

“Make good money. Drive when you want...no office, no boss”

That’s what was promised on the Uber website. The plan was to drive for Uber and discover, first hand, what working in the ‘gig economy’ was really like – self-employed, a free agent with lots of flexibility and freedom.

Uber, like Google, Facebook and Hoover has been verbified, a sign that a brand is indelibly seared onto our collective consciousness.  But in the media Uber’s become as well-known for its toxic workplace culture, misogynistic management, data breaches and poor labour practices as it has for its innovative and disruptive app-based ridesharing technology. So what’s Uber like to work for?

I’d signed up as an Uber passenger in 2015, a year after it launched in NZ. No more hunting for taxi ranks, I could see exactly where my cab was in real time so I spent less time waiting on the kerb; it just seemed to work. Plus you knew ahead of time how much the ride was going to cost, and not dealing with cash made things simple and painless: Uber debits your credit card directly. And then there’s a star rating feedback system where everyone is incentivised to be nice to one another, really nice.

Moving from the back seat to the front to take a hold of the wheel meant navigating my way through a maze of regulations and red tape.

To sign up as a driver I visit Uber’s offices in Wellington, something akin to an airline check-in desk manned by hipsters wielding iPads. A muzak playlist made me tense (why did they need a security man on the door?).

I decided to do everything by the book, complying with every regulation and requirement under New Zealand law; I took a driving test for a passenger or ‘P’ endorsement on my licence, then a one-day training course, I got security checks done in New Zealand and the UK and I sat exams for my transport service licence. 

All this, despite the fact I know some Uber drivers are not complying with New Zealand  law, aided and abetted by Uber. Today Uber appears to be playing by the book, which they would - after all, they helped write it! Uber lobbied for changes to the NZ Land Transport Bill which came into force on 1 October 2017, fast-tracking the entire licensing process.

After eight weeks of vetting, checking, training, testing and warranting, which cost more than $1500, I was ready to accept my first job. 

I opened the Uber driver app and agreed to the terms and conditions  - 15 pages of legalese, and a declaration about any medical conditions. I was now an independent contractor, working for an algorithm, as a partner of Razor operations BV, a private limited liability company based in Amsterdam.

I filled up the car with petrol, and already was down $64.90 for my first day at work.

Car trouble

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Simon's old Honda was perhaps not the smartest Uber in town. Photo: RNZ

Another of Uber’s requirements is that you have to drive a car that is less than 10 years old. My second-hand 2007 Honda FIT Aria had to be the smallest (and roughest) Uber in town. My quest to get endless five star ratings wasn’t going to be assisted by the cigarette burns dotting the interior, and the permanent reek of stale cigarette smoke.

Clearly, I was going to have to work extra hard to overcome my ride’s limitations and infuse it with my bubbly, friendly, deodorising personality.

The Uber driver app is the main way you interface with the organisation, and now it was telling me to go to the pick-up point in the airport to collect my first job

Most Uber users are easy to spot: staring at their screens tracking the location of the car they’ve booked. Naomi had two huge suitcases and a small child. I leapt out of the car like a butler on speed, opening the back doors and loading the luggage in the boot all the while spraying pleasantries at my passengers.  If they could award 6 stars I would damn well get them!

I apologised for the weather, the traffic, my car and the music before unloading my passengers at their final destination. I swiped to end the job on the app, gave my rider 5 stars, secretly hoping she’d reciprocate (and she did), and discovered I’d made $4.93 - that’s after Uber’s cut which is 25 percent but before tax, ACC, insurance, petrol costs and car maintenance.

Uber is reported to have raised nearly US$12 billion in venture capital over the last 10 years and yet word on the street is, like me, Uber is yet to make a profit. Uber’s business model is simple and effective and bad news for cab companies and even public transport. 

A smartphone app matches supply (Uber drivers) and demand (Uber riders). Uber grows demand by subsidising passenger fares with low fares and promo codes, and grows supply by incentivising drivers.

Uber knows that once you’ve used the app to get a ride you’ll probably be back for more. Tap the app and suddenly you’re at the centre of the Uber universe, cars circle on a map surrounding you.

The more you use the app the better Uber get to know you, but can we trust Uber to look after our data?  From credit card numbers to trips taken and planned - Uber collects vast amounts of information about us and how we move around. Most regular users seem to love Uber, but there are those that refuse to use it citing unfair working conditions, Uber’s unethical business practices, or just good old technophobia.

“You’re my first 5 star driver - you’re a new driver right?” 

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Photo: RNZ

The reputation economy is alive and well in Uberland as everyone is rated, both drivers and riders. With no money changing hands, all you can exchange are pleasantries and small talk as you strive for perfect 5-star feedback. 

Some drivers ply passengers with cold drinks, mints and chewing gum in the quest to be loved, others just say, “Please give me five stars”. Each party is prompted to rate one another on completing the trip, and there’s a scale of 1 to 5 stars, with written comments encouraged too.

I’d maintained a 5 star rating for my first 65 trips, which based on the car I was driving was a real endorsement of my ‘in car chat strategy’ or ICCS. 

Typically, I’d start with a general comment about the weather, the news or the traffic, then a question. Based on the reply I’d either decide to venture further with another inquiry or just shut up and drive, my eyes flashing at my rear view mirror to make sure the person looked 5-star-okay.

I soon realised I must be a better driver than a passenger, as my rider rating stayed at a stubborn 4.9 stars and yet as a driver I was a whopping 4.92.  You never really know who rates you, but I was gutted when I lost my 5 star rating as a driver (muchas gracias to the Spanish woman I dropped at a downtown hotel). I moved on, but deep down I knew that I’d blown it, mathematically speaking: I’d never reach 5 stars again.

Should I stay or should I go?

Uber operates a surge pricing model, so when demand is high prices follow, with fares ratcheting up two or three times their normal rate - it feels like pure market economics in action, until your remember Uber is taking its 25 percent cut and controls the algorithm that works out who gets what and where.

Some drivers are strategic about when they drive and where they position themselves to maximise earnings. I, on the other hand, just drifted around town with nowhere to go.

One driver I spoke to was studying medicine at university and lived in the Hutt Valley. He’d fire up the driver app, pick up a job on his way into town and earn a few bucks to cover his gas, then after a day studying he’d do the same to get home. 

TGIF

Claire, a driver in Auckland, has been driving for Uber for just over a year now. She reckons she can earn up to $1200 a weekend, so it was time to trade in my Friday night and see what I could drag in.

It all started well with a trip to Upper Hutt with a chatty man who sat in the front, destined for a stag do. He shook my hand as he hopped out and I raked in $50 gross - but would I get a ride home? I decided to cruise the Hutt and picked up another ride from Naenae to Wainuiomata. Over the hill with nowhere to go, I pondered whether to linger or head back to town.

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Photo: RNZ

The app is a constant reminder that I’m always being monitored and measured. When I log on each day I get a driving report with a score for my cornering and braking (more damn ratings), the app mines movement on my phone’s accelerometer to measure g forces in the car - what else are they measuring?

A message arrives offering me a free coffee - how nice. I park up at a BP where a couple of hipster students wearing Uber T-shirts hand out coffee vouchers and handle driver enquiries. It’s the closest thing to a taxi rank, a physical place, a community where drivers boast about how much they’ve made and grumble about the fee they’re paying Uber (and petrol prices of course). 

I’m back on the road caffeinated, it’s after midnight and things are heating up downtown. 

A girl tries to kiss me and invites me in for a drink, I ferry fumbling couples and likely lads back home hoping that my CD playlist stacks up. The night turns into early morning and the tipsy trips keep me busy, buzzing from Courtenay Place to the suburbs and back. No one soils my ride - phew.

The sum total for my Friday nights work? 37 jobs completed, I sat in my car from 3pm until 3am (12 hours) and I billed $326 in total, so nearly $30 an hour gross. I’m knackered and off to bed.

Money talks

Over the course of a month I worked a total of 52 hours (I do have a day job, and in case you’re wondering all of the revenue went to RNZ), which is probably an average week’s work for a full time Uber driver. I earned a total of $1325.50 before expenses and tax, that’s $25.74 gross per hour. So after paying tax, petrol and other expenses my hourly rate dropped to $16, with an annual income of around $48,000 - which, coincidentally, is close to the average salary in New Zealand.

There’s no official record of the total number Uber drivers in New Zealand, but figures of 2000 for Auckland and 1000 in Wellington and Christchurch are often quoted by other Uber drivers. But let’s say there are 3000 drivers working half time, so 25 hours a week: if that’s the case, based on my earnings, Uber could be making nearly $30 million per annum here in New Zealand. I wonder how much tax it's paying?

Takeaways: What did I learn?

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Photo: RNZ

The smartphone that we carry around continues to transform the world we live in, disrupting everything from media to banking and travel. Uber has revolutionised the way people get around in cities throughout the world, and it appears to be reliable, cheap and user friendly.

A service where no cash changes hands, but is lubricated by a rating system where reputation is the currency of the day means no more ‘runners’ for cab drivers and no more surly cabbies for passengers. Ratings brings out the best in everyone - for the 129 trips I drove I can't remember a rude passenger or ever feeling remotely in danger.

Whether taxi companies like or not (and they don't, they really don’t) ride sharing is here to stay: local operators like Zoomy and Ohpec are trying to emulate Uber's success, and using technology to match supply and demand. Ohpec treats its drivers more like employees than independent contractors, offering a minimum wage, sick leave and holiday pay, while making sure that tax is deducted at source.

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Photo: RNZ

As has happened in the US with Lyft, and in Asia with operators like Didi and Grab, Uber is in a dominant but not untouchable position. Fighting persistently negative press, a poor public image and a perception as a giant, impersonal US interloper makes it vulnerable to tailored local offerings that are better targeted at passengers' demands while taking less of a cut from the workers.

Once the initial friction and novelty of using a ride-sharing app recedes, taking a taxi no longer feels like a luxury. With prices lower, and in some cases half that of cab fares, Uber has spawned a whole new market for short hop trips where the minimum fare is $6.50.  I picked up students shopping or rushing for lectures, portly PR consultants buzzing after a cafe meeting, commuters and kids, call girls and cafe workers - but will this cost us in the long run as people walk less and stop using public transport?

But don't go getting the impression that everyone's an Uber believer. Some people I spoke to viewed Uber and its motives with suspicion (at best).

Its tax-avoidant behaviour and the casualisation of its workforce make it far from a perfect corporate citizen. Others will never overcome their suspicions over the technology, or their fears that in using it their personal safety and privacy is being compromised.

Uber has big, big plans for the future and the financial resources to put them into practice; from its well-publicised interest in driverless cars and its deal with Volvo for a fleet of 24,000 autonomous vehicles, to the food delivery service UberEATS, and the UberPOOL carpooling service that I tried on a recent visit to Boston. Uber will make money one day, in the meantime they’re spending billions in the fight to own the transport industry, from commuting and freight, to deliveries.

Despite some misgivings about a lonely and boring life on the road spent waiting in service stations and fast food joints it was quite fun and surprisingly social. Not knowing who you’d meet next or where you’d be heading provided a layer of suspense, a social roulette wheel which I found exciting, and I met and spoke with a far wider group of people than I would ever rub shoulders with normally. Then again, I wasn’t depending on Uber as my only or primary source of income, which perhaps gave me a different perspective on things.

So would I do it all again? Sitting for long periods is seriously bad for your health (and your bum), and the fact that your peak earning times are also peak personal fun times could be a challenge on a regular basis, but as I grow older and grumpier, and need more of an incentive in my life to be pleasant and courteous to strangers, driving for Uber could be a way to earn a few dollars and stay connected to the community.  A form of therapy for misanthropes perhaps, and you earn cash at the same time.

Both Uber and Zoomy were approached for comment in the preparation of this story, but neither responded.

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