Uber from the driver’s seat

Back in the early 1970’s when I was in college, John Coleman was the President of Haverford College, a close neighbor of my alma mater, Swarthmore College. During his vacations, President Coleman often worked as a laborer, short order cook, or dishwasher. My favorite stories were about his service as a garbageman. This college CEO and President of the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank fancied himself a pretty fair collector of garbage. Of course he never suggested he would give up his day job for one of these part time gigs, but I admired him for just being open to experiencing a different side of working life.

Whether being an Uber driver today is the equivalent of a garbageman in the 70’s is a point I won’t argue, but from my first ride with Uber six months ago, the urge to try this out from the driver’s seat appealed to me. It seemed like an opportunity to experience how a growing number of Americans experience work. And to be fully transparent, I love to drive and with a very creaky back these days, I’m not a huge fan of manual labor.

I’ve got to hand it to Uber. They are really good at what they do. Really good. Five minutes after starting the on-line registration, my cell phone rang and the voice on the other end of the phone asked “Am I ready to have my car inspected?” Ridiculously efficient. Within a few more minutes, a very nice man in a very clean car pulled into the entrance of my university. Had I really not washed and vacuumed my car in a couple weeks? Nice start to a new job. Despite these shortcomings, after a ten minute very organized and regimented inspection, I passed (or I should say my near-new, but slightly dirty Volvo passed).

My inspector had been driving with Uber for 17 months. His customer rating was 4.85 on a scale of one to five. He clearly was not someone to be ignored and so I listened very carefully to the driving tips he began to impart. It will take me a while, he suggested, to figure out how best to catch rides. Stay away from large events. They are a pain to get into and out of. I can drop people at the airport but I’m not allowed not to pick them up. Sometimes, he advises, it’s best just to sit near a hot neighborhood. The bars in Buckhead or the Marta stations in North Atlanta are a good bet. The gentleman’s clubs on Cheshire Bridge Road late at night are also lucrative. That ought to make my wife happy. Other times, just try roaming a bit. On a good Saturday night, I ought to be able to clear $300 to $400. Since I’m donating my earnings to Oglethorpe’s scholarship fund, that has the potential of being a night well spent. I’ve certainly been to plenty of alumni events where I didn’t take that much in for my school.

Here’s what else I now know about the inside workings of Uber. If someone throws up in my car, just take a picture, e-mail it in, get my car cleaned, and I’ll get reimbursed. And as an Uber driver, I’m eligible for all sorts of discounts at tire stores, oil lube outlets, cell phone companies and even gas stations. This was getting better every minute.

By the close of day one, my driving record has been checked and my license, insurance and registration reviewed and approved. I think we are awaiting my criminal background check before they allow me to take the Uber test. Seventy questions and I need to score a seventy percent passing grade before my credentials will be issued. My inspector commented that I seemed like a smart enough guy to get a seventy. Clearly, he have not discovered that I have flunked my first driver’s test 45 years ago. I plan to study up over the holiday weekend.

I’ll share more after my virgin ride. I haven’t been this nervous in a long time.

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7 Responses to Uber from the driver’s seat

  1. Didi says:

    You are a riot! Sounds like the perfect occupation for your writing career! 😉

  2. HILARRYOUS!!!! You never cease to amaze me!

  3. Faith Levy says:

    Hey Larry
    Many years ago, my Dad took a furnace repair course and apprenticed with a pro. Although it’s a good thing he never left his day job, I think he was (and remains) very proud of his apprenticeship. Good luck to you on your driver’s test – it took me a few tries to get my driver’s license too (maybe it runs in the family…). Best to Betty.

  4. Becky says:

    Love this! I’m a bit nervous for you. Good luck and please be safe. I cannot wait to read more of these stories once you get a few jobs.

  5. Ali says:

    This is fantastic! So happy I have you as my school’s president!
    Good luck and share the stories!

  6. Dan Matisoff says:

    Professor Schall – I read your commentary in the Washington Post.
    I am an economist at Georgia Tech. 2 years ago, I also experimented with being an Uber driver for a few reasons. First, I was curious about the business model and how it all worked. It was new to Atlanta at the time. And I was curious about the “sharing economy”, similar to you. Second, I was intrigued by a NYT article that suggested that at peak times, due to Uber’s peak pricing model (which really interested me as an economist), one could make upwards of $150/hr as an uber driver. And that was above my reservation wage.
    My experience as a driver was very different than yourss. It was similar in other ways. Some observations: a) I drove a lot of more stereotypical Uber customers. I drove a lot of college students; a lot of young singles; a lot of young couples on the way out or on the way home. Part of this is because most of my driving hours were weekend nights 10pm – 3am, and part of this was because I live in midtown Atlanta, and tried to stay close to home. I did drive some folks to and from work as well.
    b) Most of the riders were friendly and talkative. Much moreso than in a typical taxi ride. But some riders were incredibly rude. And others – especially security guards at bars, etc – were incredibly awful people to drivers.
    c) Most importantly, I learned a lot about the Uber business model, and the exploitation of the drivers. Uber exploits information asymmetry. They provide limited information to the drivers. They strategically skew and hide information. At the time, they provided very inaccurate or misleading “heat maps”. They misrepresent potential earnings. They “guaranteed” hourly wages of $15 / hr on the weekends, and these do not happen. They claimed that there was guaranteed surge pricing, or there would be surge pricing on the heat maps, and these would disappear as soon as you’d enter the zone, or the surge pricing wouldn’t actually exist.
    They continuously texted and harass their drivers (though after complaining, the texts stopped). While I averaged $20 – 30 / hr in revenue during prime hours, once you account for costs (gas, insurance, wear and tear on the vehicle, taxes, etc,) my estimate was that the real wage was closer to $10 – 15 / hr. And there were definitely times that it was closer to $7 / hr. For example, if a customer asks you to wait, it’s about $7/hr. I believe that most Uber drivers don’t really understand how to account for costs, taxes, etc. And they are misled by the revenue, rather than real profit.
    d) And some of the other things they did were downright creepy. For example, it’s clear that Uber staggers your rides / pings in order to keep as many drivers out driving as possible. Even on nights where there were tons of riders and tons of demand, and I was positioned close to the bars, there would be 10 – 15 minute waits between pings. I also had a strategy: every night I drove (which wasn’t terribly many), around 2am, I’d want to call it quits, and I’d start driving home. If I got home, I’d stay there. If I was pinged, and it wasn’t too far out of my way, I’d pick up the ride. Sometimes I’d get super lucky and drive someone back to my neighborhood. But mostly, I noticed, I wouldn’t be pinged until I was just a couple blocks from home. And Uber promises that they’ll punish you if you ignore a ping. It literally felt like they were purposefully giving me rides, only when I was close to my house – threatening to call it a night. Maybe good business, but it started to feel predatory. And I stopped driving shortly thereafter.
    As a rider, I notice that some things (like Uber’s GPS, like asking for a destination, etc) – have gotten a lot better. But I also notice that Uber has pushed prices down, which is great for the riders… but I can’t help but feel a bit sorry for the drivers who are probably making just $7 – 9 / hr under the new pricing structure.
    Alan Kreuger did a study concluding that Uber drivers make more than taxi drivers. I’m curious about the details. And I don’t know what taxi drivers really make. But I also can’t imagine how this is a good deal for the drivers.

    • petrelwords says:

      Very thoughtful Dan. As I wrote, my focus ended up more on the riders than the drivers. I don’t doubt much of what you write. On the other hand, tens of thousands of people sign up to drive and continue doing so. It seems to me not a bad way to supplement an income, but likely not a great full time job. I suspect driving a taxi in Atlanta isn’t very lucrative either and my limited experience with taxi service versus Uber service is not favorable. Larry

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