Speaker by Various Artists


Confessions of an Uber driver

by Ben Wilson

My first confession is that I'm an Uber driver. Actually, it's my only confession. It's been 65 days since my first Uber passenger.

It's a confession that has to be made, mostly because it surprises anyone who knows more than nothing about me. I'm not your typical Uber driver. Uber passengers point this out to me, pretty much every ride. I've heard every euphemism for "middle aged white man", and also for "not a middle aged white man", you can imagine as passengers struggle to convey their surprise that I'm ... "normal".

Their bafflement only increases as it becomes plain that I'm intelligent and educated and not broke, and don't have any (obvious) unusual personality quirks or physical attributes that would make other employment difficult. There's typically an "aha" moment when I divulge that I'm a student, although the bafflement tends to return once it gets down to what I'm a student of, and what I did before I was a student.

It's been a very strange part of the job to be finally doing something where practically every person I come across is interested in what it involves. Even more strange to be intensely grilled about my life as if I was the most fascinating person on the planet. It's through the rabbit hole to then get a 5 star rating and a nice comment about how much they enjoyed the experience.

So what's being an Uber driver like? I can honestly say, no joke, that it's most fun job I've ever done. Basically, I spend hours in conversation with people from all walks of life, listening to music, finding out what's going on and where, hearing about their careers or lives or whatever it is they want to talk about. Then I get paid for it.

Oh, and I drive people to where they want to go, for a very reasonable price, in a timely manner, safely and comfortably. That's the most basic part of it, the fundamental function, of course – but you knew that. That's the bit that I can't stuff up, the bit I absolutely have to get right. That's the bare minimum. That's the part that's so automatic, I kind of forget to mention it.

I've never been in a position to steer conversations so much as I get every night in my car. Oh, sorry, minor detail – I drive mostly at night, particularly the busiest nights, Friday and Saturday. Let me steer you guys now, to where this ride is meant to go. This, strangely, is not the first Uber ride where I've been the one to pick the destination, as the driver. Not even the first one this week.

So how about these massive price drops that happened on the other day? In case you didn't know, Uber made a whole bunch of changes in Auckland and Wellington last Thursday, all announced simultaneously. As drivers we found out no sooner than our riders, that as of ... that instant ... all Uber rides were now 20% cheaper than the day before.

Yes, I found out about my 20% pay cut only hours before it came into effect. Some of my fellow drivers found out about it in the middle of their shift. They suddenly discovered that the smallest possible ride they could give was now for $4, before costs, where earlier in the shift it had been $4.80.

These rates are being trialled. It's only for a month and, simultaneously, they brought in something I found interesting: 'Guaranteed' Hourly Rates. Auckland-only.

Also brought in simultaneously was an announcement that they had lowered the standards for driver entry. This is not just for Christchurch, where they had already done that. This is in Auckland and Wellington too, where up until yesterday, drivers had basically the exact same compliance standards and costs as taxi drivers, with only one exception: Uber runs the meter.

This was always of dubious legality in this country, but no one has yet been successfully prosecuted. This is hardly that unfair, since the meter Uber does run is a very fair and extremely competitive one, which is also back-checked against the meter held by the customer in their own pocket. It's pretty clear to anyone but the most petty bureaucrat that, as a metering system, it's a good one, and the law just hasn't kept up.

Furthermore, it's an opt-in system. You had to call the Uber to you using the app. You had to agree to the terms and conditions to even install it. In every fair sense, there is an agreement between the customer and the provider about what the fare structure will be, which is all that is technically required for a Private Hire Service.

In the letter of the law, however, this kind of service is meant to agree to a fixed price beforehand, or an hourly rate. Metering the kilometres traveled is not allowed. Only taxis may do that. The definition of a taxi is very strict.

How do I know all these rules? Therein lies what I really wanted to bring to your attention. To become an Uber driver, I had to get a P endorsement. It's not a particularly difficult thing to get, I just had to pass a course, have held a full NZ drivers license for two years, pass the practical driving test again and pass a full police check which involved scrutiny of my driving record. (Both here and overseas - I had to get all my records from my time in Australia 16 years ago, both from VicRoads and from the Federal Police. It took a few months, and cost about a thousand dollars, $400 of which were reimbursed by Uber.)

The course itself was a two-day affair, and naturally very simple. I had to learn what the law was for passenger drivers. All of the laws, including laws that don't cover my situation. I had to learn the laws of shuttle buses, and tour buses and school buses, and dial-a-driver services, and taxis, as well as Private Hire Services involving Small Passenger Vehicles, which is what Uber does here. The most complex of these by far is taxis. A great deal of the course was about what they are and are not allowed to do.

Quite a bit of the course was also dedicated to the simple issue of customer service and rights, particularly the rights of the disabled, and how they should be dealt with. Also, a lot about how to fill out log books and all the dangers associated with tired driving, and a whole lot of very stern (and righteous) warnings about the severity of the punishments you can face by not complying with log book laws and other compliance matters.

As of yesterday, drivers for Uber are no longer being required to get a P endorsement. I'm curious what you guys all think about that.

Uber drivers, from now on, could turn up without the proper license that the law says they must have, in a vehicle that also does not have the certification that the law says it must have. It will be enough to have a WOF, where I had to get a COF for my car. They no longer need to drive under a Transport Service License (TSL). They will not need commercial insurance. They will not need to keep a log of their driving hours.

Well, so says Uber – although obviously NZTA and the police beg to differ. Their position is that they will fine the hell out of people doing all that, anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 for the first offense. I'm really quite nervous about what tonight is going to be like, despite being as 100% compliant as it was possible to be yesterday.

For interest, a COF was really easy to get for my car, because it's a sedan - I only had to make one alteration, disabling the kiddie locks (or I could optionally have put a red sticker on the door saying it had a working kiddie lock). I glued them up, proved to LTNZ that I had a proper TSL that I was working under, and they gave me a COF, and I began work that day. Modifications to non-sedan shapes are bit more onerous. Vehicles like Priuses (which are most of the Uber fleet) have to have a proper certified luggage barrier to prevent luggage killing passengers in the event of an accident. Seven-seater vans need to essentially have the sliding door seat removed to make the entry way clear enough that passengers can be got out easily in the event of an accident.

As of yesterday, no such assurances will be necessarily made about a vehicle you book with Uber. You will have to check for yourself, if you are worried. Hint: It's called a Certificate of Fitness, not a Warrant of Fitness. If it has one of those, it's functionally the same as a taxi. If it doesn't, all bets are off.

The pay cut, I have no real objection to. Not yet anyway. It's a suck-it-and-see moment. Maybe the rising demand will cover the 20% less earnings per trip. I'll be working 20% more, but since I enjoy the work, I'm not expecting that to be that much more terrible. Although this nagging back pain that's reared its ugly head might temper that some, if I pretty much won't be able to spend as much time outside of the vehicle as I used to.

But these safety related cuts ...? Guys? Just to get drivers on the road faster, we're now going to be breaking the safety laws? Because the neverending stream of people signing up for Uber at the office every time I go there just isn't enough? Or is it the cost of reimbursing them for the course?

The changes are naturally, welcomed by most riders. The Herald responded fairly positively, although the reporter also noted that the Government has undertaken a sweeping review, and reports the proposed changes, but unfortunately only mentions the things that are already the law. The actual changes remove some of the lesser requirements.

Unfortunately, there's a bit of a disconnect between Uber's policy and all of this. Ridesharing is specifically mentioned in this Ministry of Transport Q&A, and it specifically says that the service must pass all the same compliance as any other Small Passenger Service. In other words, drivers will still need P Endorsements, COFs, an organisation that is their employer, etc.

These changes, of course, have not yet come into effect. Probably in 2017. So right now, the law is still as it was. It's still illegal to drive someone “for hire or reward” without having a P Endorsement in this country. All Uber drivers, up until Thursday, had one of those. I have one.

I'm going to cut this ride off here. You can have another one if you like, there's plenty more to say about this strange phenomenon known as Uber, and no time to say it. Please leave a comment! I want to know what the hive mind thinks about this, so I won't mediate with my own opinion on it – you have some of the facts now.

It's my intention to make this the first of a series of posts on the topic of Ubering, should enough interest be generated. Future possible topics: uberASSIST. Surge Pricing. How much we get paid. Tricks and traps. Best ride anecdotes. The future. The perfect playlist. Taxi Wars. Is it safe? The rating system.

Cheers guys. Have a mint. Please, don't chunder in here. 5 stars are given out liberally.

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