So, how long have you been driving for Uber?

My freshman year at Boston College, I actually remember taking taxis.  It seems like a far-out, obsolete concept to some, but just a few short years ago, the only way a group of six people were going to find their way out of the North End after dinner by car was in one of those elusive SUV cabs, given they weren’t willing to resort to the T.  The rides weren’t cheap either, and to be honest, sometimes I would prefer the T, even if it meant the commute time would double.  Maybe you could call a company and ask them to send a car to you, and maybe there would be one close by, but 10 minutes after their estimate would have me calling back, only to be told the driver was still “on his way.”

But my freshman year, something else happened.  This app called Uber started turning up on flyers and business cards, and started to sponsor tables at events.  Students were soon recruited as ambassadors and could be found spamming local Facebook event pages with their referral codes.  The offer wasn’t terrible either.  Sign up, get $20, refer a friend, get another $20.  Among my floormates in CLXF on upper campus, we managed to ride for free around Boston on the weekends for a solid month or two with everyone just trading their referral codes and pooling their promotional credits.

My first impression however, was less than stellar.  Having now taken close to 300 rides and driven over 450 miles with Uber, I can safely say my first ride was well below average in terms of quality, but still didn’t stop me from continuing to use the service.  The car was old, didn’t have heat, and the seatbelt was jammed so far under the seat that I couldn’t even put it on. I don’t believe the driver understood anything I said to him, but he was on time, got me where I needed to go, and maybe would have cost me $12 were it not for the credits I had.

That year, as Uber was just picking up steam, I remember having that age-old conversation with many drivers about how they decided to start driving for Uber and how profitable it was for them.  Back then, I would listen as the drivers would gush about how great it was to work their own hours and rake in the cash driving rowdy college students around on the weekends.  No one seemed to mind the size of the cut Uber took because the unprecedented ad-hoc workforce it had created.

But Uber has not been free of reproach all this time.  In fact, just months after I began using the app, the first hints of controversy began oozing out of Uber.  Sarah Lacy, a former TechCrunch and Businessweek columnist wrote an article slamming Silicon Valley’s “asshole culture.”  She condemned Uber as a “company that prides itself on playing rough and aiming to break laws.”  One of the founders, Travis Kalanick was challenged by Lacy for his sexist and misogynistic comments about the effect Uber had on his sex life, uttering “we call that boob-er.”  Later, BuzzFeed News reported that, during a supposedly off-the-record dinner, Kalanick had mentioned his intention to invest a million dollars in a team of researchers dedicated to investigating the personal lives of those publicly critical of the company and its executives, including Sarah Lacy.

At this point in time, I had only just become familiar with Uber and this controversy seemed concerning as a user, but white noise among the chaos of Bay Area tech start-ups.  Today, it seems to fit right into an evolving narrative of a headstrong and ruthless company.  Uber then came under fire later that year after Lyft discovered over 5,000 rides had been called and canceled by 177 Uber employees.  Not only did this move waste the time of Lyft drivers and disrupt their ability to service their customers, but Uber also reportedly used the occasions to offer cash incentives to the drivers to switch to Uber.

But no critique of Uber’s ethics would be complete without addressing the ongoing lawsuits and protests surrounding the discontentment of traditional cab drivers worldwide, as well as Uber’s own contracted drivers.  For better or for worse, Uber disrupted transportation with its ridesharing economy approach.  The ad-hoc, at-will employment of drivers worldwide meant that Uber didn’t need to pay for cars, employee benefits, or comprehensive insurance.  This lightweight business approach solidified Uber as a technology and logistics company, which leaves the human drivers caught in between.

Since employment laws can vary in each city Uber seeks to operate in, the lawsuits will likely continue and the brazen management of this technology company will continue to agitate its own public image.  As recently as this past January, we have seen evidence that more and more people expect not only a company’s figureheads, but the companies themselves, to be actively involved in current events and politics.  Today, your ridesharing app’s political views are becoming as important as a politician’s views.  Uber learned the hard way when the #DeleteUber movement forced them to clarify their messaging toward the President’s travel ban and the related protests.  In the future, I believe more and more companies will be forced to speak up about the political views of their userbase, and any discord could have serious side effects, especially to newer, more vulnerable start-ups.

After having spent $4,864 on Ubers since my first time using the app and having spent nearly 24 hours of my life riding in an Uber, it’s tough for me to imagine life, particularly college life, without the app.  But it’s also tough for me to imagine Uber continuing to succeed as a company if they continue to be at odds with the ideology of its vocal users.

Follow me on Twitter @CJPrall

11 comments

  1. Really enjoyed this piece – I was aware that the CEO had a track record for saying some controversial things, but I wasn’t aware of the specifics. The discussion of the tech culture reminded me of a book I read recently about the Boston-based company, Hubspot.

    Their roll-out strategy was really well executed – it was interesting to hear about your experience on how it grew on campus.

    I found it interesting that you feel that more and more companies will be forced to speak up about the political views of their users. I would imagine that many companies would prefer to take an apolitical approach and not risk alienating any of their customers, but I guess that is easier said than done in 2017.

  2. I agree with Paul – I had no idea about the controversial comments the CEO made. I’ve asked Uber drivers how much they actually make off of the trips, and it’s not nearly as much as I would’ve expected. I also have tried to look into the algorithm for the way price surging works and it doesn’t really seem to add up – which has been a huge complaint among Uber users. Uber has come back at the complaints claiming it’s all based on supply and demand. However, I would turn to a different ride sharing app if the price was too high. On NYE on year, my Uber from downtown Boston to my off campus house in Brighton was over $200! Additionally, I think it’s interesting you bring up the political views. I was thinking last night watching the Grammys that literally everything is politicized now, and it’s hard for a company not to take a stance. I’m curious to see how Uber handles this going forward.

  3. This is a great summary of Uber’s history. It’s hard to keep straight the events surrounding Uber, and you did a great job summarizing it. It’s interesting how Uber is continually under fire, yet they still remain the dominant player. I’ve noticed Lyft and Fasten’s prices are generally lower, and I feel better about giving them my business, but most of my friends are exclusively Uber-loyal. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on what more Lyft and Fasten could do to chip away at the giant.

    As a driver, how do you feel about the contractor approach to payment? As you pointed out, at first, the contracting approach and low payment was totally acceptable, as drivers used Uber as a form of supplemental income. But now, when more drivers’ livelihood depends on Uber, do you think they should be considered full employees?

    The total numbers you added up for how much you paid for Uber seem shocking, but I remember feeling that same shock after freshman year when I added up how much I spent on Uber as well. $5 here, $10 there adds up so quickly. Seeing those numbers really made me more appreciative of public transport, and I now take the T whenever I can. I’m curious how prices will change when Uber rolls out self-driving cars in the near-or-distant future.

  4. What a great blog. I enjoyed your insights and shared many of the same feelings you did when Uber first came onto the scene. I remember saving small bills for taxi rides, and when Uber became an option for many, I was skeptical. After a short period of doubt, I began to rely on Uber just like everybody. The company has definitely had some controversial dilemmas, but they seem to overcome them pretty quickly. Taking a stand politically has proven to have a huge impact on business for many companies. This year’s election has made that clear, and I think more and more companies will be inclined to take a stand on issues. My question is whether they are doing that to drive profits, or if they truly care about the issue at hand. Taking a stand is certainly a risk, but it makes more companies visible to the public, ultimately giving them brand awareness and “buzz.” Aside from those working for the company, I think it will be challenging for users and the public to determine the nature and intent of a company’s political actions

  5. I can barely remember how many taxis I took freshman year because it seemed liked uber completely took over. They marketed it tot eh perfect demographic,cheap college kids looking to get places faster, and it completely blew up. It’s hard to read and hear about all the major controversial comments and its that uber does, but yet we all still use it. Do ethics no longer matter when a company is so successful and making our lives easier? I agree that it disrupted the transportation system and sometimes it even cheaper for me to uber somewhere than take the T anymore.

  6. Nice post. Uber certainly has changed the game, but I do think they are demonstrating some of the negatives that can come from it. Many drivers don’t enjoy working for Uber now, either. Will be interesting to see if they prevail over time, because switching costs are pretty low. They seem to be fairly immune to most criticism at this point, though.

  7. This truly was a great post. One thing that I have thought a lot more about lately is how big a role social activism and doing the “right” thing is in a consumer purchasing decision. As much as I would like to think most people would stay away from companies that are ethically in question, is it worth the premium in $? For example, if Uber has been using questionably ethical tactics to gain a competitive advantage, would I be willing to spend an extra $20 on my airport ride by taking a taxi instead? I doubt I would and I feel like most people feel the same. Doing the right thing is important but I feel as though it has a lower impact on consumer purchasing decisions that most expect.

  8. The title of this post totally caught my eye because I ask that question EVERY time I get into an Uber. It used to be answered with enthusiasm. Drivers were pumped they could make some easy money in their own cars on their own time. Now, competing with other ride-share start-ups and dealing with the new regulations (https://www.boston.com/news/business/2016/03/09/uber-lyft-see-challenges-in-massachusetts-bill), drivers seem to be worn down. The most recent bill passed in MA requires drivers to pay 20-cents per ride to help Taxi drivers that have been hurt by ride-sharing technology. Fair or not, it’s definitely an industry that will have more regulation coming it’s way in the future.

  9. I’m very torn about Uber. While initially the narrative certainly was “get extra cash on the side for the car you own”, more and more I hear stories of Uber drivers who seem to be driving far more often than just a “weekend” job. Moreover, it appears that via Lyft/Uber’s partnerships with GM & Ford, more and more drivers are LEASING cars to start driving for Lyft/Uber. So much for taking cars off the road…. But at the end of the day for me, the app is infinitely more convenient for me than calling a regular taxi company, hoping I’m within range of a nearby taxi, just praying that the driver will be able to find me, and last but not least, hoping that the driver accepts credits cards.

  10. Great topic. I agree that it’s hard to imagine life without uber and that while the company will hit its sweet spot after which it will not be able to sustain itself at the same level, I don’t think it is quite there yet. I still think uber is on the rise, with a lot of room for growth of older generations who are late adopters and I think that drones will certainly become a central focus of their business in the future – transporting goods as well as people. Interesting topic!

  11. I’ve had a number of similar conversations with friends reflecting/questioning on what life was/would be like without Uber. To your point, I cannot imagine having to go through college without it. In the beginning I also always spoke with drivers about why/how they made the decision to Uber and not a taxi service – I received similar feedback around convenience, and found that many of them had converted from driving a taxi to driving with Uber. These days, while there are a lot of people that drive for Uber full time, I’m more often running into drivers who drive for uber on the side to make some extra cash. While the company is often bashed for taking away jobs, it’s important to consider the jobs and new income streams its created for so many people.

%d bloggers like this: