UPDATE: Soon after this story published, Uber's PR team tried to pull a fast one on us.
The author is a current Uber driver who shared his experiences on the condition that we not use his real name.
I never thought I would be an Uber driver. But last Christmas I came to the startling realization that, in fact, money does not grow on trees. Not even my parents’ trees. And there was just too much month at the end of my money.
Not one to shirk responsibility, I applied simultaneously to work both for Lyft and for Uber. Well, not simultaneously, per se; that’s impossible. But you get my point.
Did you know that there are more starving artists in Los Angeles than there are unproduced screenplays in Los Angeles? Hence, Uber.
Upon comparing the Uber and Lyft websites, the former struck me as pretentious while the latter seemed corny but fun. When Lyft responded to my application immediately, I figured we’d be a match, pink mustache and all.
I took my first Lyft ride as a passenger at Sundance while they were doing a free ride promotion. Now, I’m sure you’re wondering, “Hey, if you were so broke, why were you at Sundance?” To answer your question, shut up. I had the fortune to ride in the self proclaimed Hip-Hop Lyft driven by a dreadlocked dude who quizzed me on all things hip hop. Somehow I overcame my Caucasian roots and passed the test, earning cool Lyft prizes like a flimsy iPhone case and pink earrings. That last prize wasn’t for me, I swear. Lyft’s MO was clearly make it fun. And I liked that.
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Fast-forward to a month later where I found myself “Lyfting” around L.A. as a driver, relatively impressed with the functionality of the app and the casual rapport I was having with passengers. Most were proud converts (“Taxis suck! Thank God for ridesharing!”) and I couldn’t blame them. Despite the absurd mustache calling card on my front bumper, it was easy-peasy and the money wasn’t bad. I even made a friend or two.
Then, suddenly, a strange passenger appeared. His destination was only a couple blocks away and he used that distance to “refer” me to UberX, claiming I’d get $500 for joining and driving 20 rides plus zero commission for the first month. I had no dog in this fight and money talks, so I did it.
Passenger X was smart. He made his commission for bringing me to the dark side. He knew how to work the system to his advantage. As it turns out, so did Uber.
Once I joined Uber, there seemed to be no looking back. I scored $500 for joining, $500 or $250 for referring friends to the platform, $40 per hour guarantees on Friday and Saturday nights. My first night I made about $300, mainly due to a 7.5 surge price on a trip from West Hollywood to downtown L.A. which cost the passenger more than $100. Unethical? You betcha. Did I care? Not a bit! I finally had a part-time gig that paid like it was full-time. I could make more in a weekend than some people make all week. Having worked many dismal minimum wage jobs, this was a godsend. But even God knows the devil is in the details.
I started to witness the ruthless machinations of a libertarian monopoly. While evading most taxi regulations and delving into ethically murky waters, Uber was aggressively trying to eliminate the competition, free-market style. It wasn’t exactly subtle: “Earn $500 for referring Lyft drivers!” Hmm. The money was good, but where was it coming from? How long could it last? And at what expense? The answers, respectively, are Google, not long and everyone’s expense.
Of the $1.2 billion Uber has raised in capital, Google Ventures has invested $258 million. So that’s how they could afford all those generous bonuses. Although the latest valuation estimates the company’s worth at $18.2 billion, the long-term market value of the company could be $200 billion or more, according to Google Ventures. Yes, that’s $200 billion with a b. That’s half the GDP of Austria. Although, to be fair, the GDP of Austria will likely be much higher this year… because now there’s Uber in Austria — and 44 other countries. Über impressive.
The advantage of a free market is that it fosters competition, so Uber could only stay popular if it matched Lyft’s prices, toned down its insane surge pricing schemes and managed to keep enough drivers on the road for the service to be reliable. So that’s exactly what the company did. They cut their prices nearly in half, thereby lessening the surge prices and, since drivers were now losing out on a big chunk of change, Uber kept bribing — I mean, incentivizing — us with bonuses to drive on weekend nights. Smart, perhaps. But about as sustainable in the long run as the Hindenburg.
Uber was delayed in processing a mysterious inspection form that was suddenly required seven months into my driving. So while I waited for them to get their act together, I decided to drive Lyft for the evening. It was at that moment that I realized how effective Uber’s scorched-earth strategy had been. In the time I would have given seven or eight rides with Uber, I only gave three with Lyft, in between several bouts of aggressive thumb-twiddling. Lyft was losing, drivers were losing and, ultimately, when drivers realize it’s not worth their time anymore, customers will lose too.
At the end of the day, Uber, despite its faux German name, is purely American. It wants to be No. 1 and will do anything to get there with little regard for collateral damage.
So you still want to be an Uber driver? Forget its F rating by the Better Business Bureau. Lyft got the same thing. Forget the infinite customer complaints and the notoriously bad customer service for passengers and drivers, accessible via email only. Forget the many technical and GPS-related issues. And forget that Uber is taking over the world while fighting off clever competitors left and right.
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If you’re as broke as I was and are still thinking about giving it a shot, all you need to do is the math: Add about $15 per hour you want to drive, subtract the Uber fee (20 percent), subtract the $10 weekly “device fee” for using their iPhone, subtract your car payments, your insurance, your DMV fees, your gas, your taxes and sometimes your dignity.
What you will likely have left is nothing more than a chance to say “a $200 billion company depends on me but I can’t pay my rent.” You might say that’s wrong. They might say it’s genius. I say it's über American.