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A Little More Uber

Columnist: Michael E. Duffy
August, 2015 Issue
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Michael E. Duffy
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As you might expect, the whole system ends up getting gamed.

 
Last month, I wrote about Uber, a company that connects idle drivers with people needing rides. I also wrote about the “Uber-ization” of everything: companies that connect independent service providers with people who need their services right now, using smartphones and the Internet. Uber-like companies are in the “connection” business, rather than the underlying business of transportation, housecleaning (Handy), or....
 
But I didn’t have room for this: For an Uber-like service to thrive, it needs to make sure its service providers are meeting the expectations of the people who receive the service. For example, after riding in an Uber car, the rider is required to rate his or her driver from one to five, with five being best. Uber uses the ratings to ensure drivers are perceived by riders as top notch. Since Uber was originally a “black car” (private driver) replacement, this makes lots of sense: As a rider, I’d expect a better experience from a private car service than a taxi. In fact, one of the big appeals of Uber has been how markedly it improves upon all facets of the taxi experience.
 
According to Uber drivers, a rating below 4.6 will cause you to be deactivated as a driver. Uber is remarkably close-mouthed about it (although drivers are painfully aware of it). To quote my friend Fritz again: “The one thing I don’t like is the driver rating system. You have to think about whether this family man is going to lose his job if you give him a four instead of a five. I wouldn’t mind that as an option, but I dislike being forced to do it.” Of course, if it’s optional, you tend to get the Yelp effect. People who are upset tend to be more vocal than people who are happy.
 
It wasn’t long before Uber riders discovered that they, too, were being rated. To quote Uber: “An Uber trip should be a good experience for drivers too—drivers shouldn’t have to deal with aggressive, violent or disrespectful riders,” the company says. “If a rider exhibits disrespectful, threatening or unsafe behavior, they, too, may no longer be able to use the service.” By the way, if you’re a curious Uber rider, you can get your passenger rating by emailing Uber customer support.
 
As you might expect, the whole system ends up getting gamed. “Five-for-five” is an expression that may be exchanged between you and your driver, indicating that you’ll give each other a rating of five.
 
Looking at Uber’s guide for getting good passenger ratings, the emphasis is placed on making sure you accurately “pin” your location on the map when requesting a ride, not exceeding the legal capacity of the car (typically four, plus the driver) and not making a mess of the car (which, after all, belongs to the driver). It’s all common courtesy, which is, sadly, less common these days.
 
It’s interesting to see the range of Uber experiences (which vary by city). If you’re moving four people (or fewer), there’s Uber Black (the original private car version of Uber), UberX (you get picked up by an ordinary car), Uber Taxi (which is just a taxi that you pay for via the Uber app), and Uber LUX (which uses high-end cars like the Mercedes S-Class, BMW 7-Series and Audi A8). For parties of five or six, there’s Uber SUV. More than that, and you’re into multiple vehicles.
 
Alas, Uber doesn’t penetrate very far into the North Bay. Although there’s a press release on the site announcing service in the cities of Sonoma and Santa Rosa, they aren’t listed in the search function at uber.com, so the app is the final arbiter of what’s available. Opening my Uber app just now, I can see a handful of UberX cars in the vicinity of Santa Rosa (no Black or SUVs available). UberLUX? For the time being, you’ll have to relocate to London or Los Angeles, I’m afraid.
 
Following the publication of my last column, the Press Democrat did a long article (tinyurl.com/nghlssp) on the impact of Uber and Lyft (primarily Uber) on taxi and livery services in Sonoma County, and identified a local Uber competitor: BlinkCar (www.blinkcar.com), started by the owner of Petaluma-based Pure Luxury Transportation (in self-defense?).
 
Perhaps more important, the California Labor Commission (CLC) ruled in June that at least one Uber driver should have been classed as an employee by the company. This threatens the “independent contractor” model, which makes Uber such an attractive investment play (remember that $50 billion valuation I mentioned last month?), and possibly the future of all Uber-like things (at least in California). As you might expect, Uber has responded that the ruling is non-binding, applies to only one driver and notes that five other states agree with Uber as to the independent contractor status of its “driver partners.” Of course, Uber has appealed the ruling and, absent an injunction, continues to match drivers and riders. And so it goes.
 
Given that all manner of services are being Uber-ized, I couldn’t help but Google “uber for sex” to see if some entrepreneur was addressing an obvious candidate. If you’re interested, try it for yourself—it’s really quite tame. But I don’t think we’ll see it (at least in the United States) anytime soon.
 
Finally, for your own peace of mind, you might want to Google “uber for” whatever business you happen to be in. We haven’t seen the end of the gig economy yet.

 

 

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