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Confessions of an Uber Driver II: How we doing?

by Ben Wilson

So you're back for another ride? Liked the service last time? Or maybe the price? Used your promo code to get $20 off your first ride and realized you could have gone all the way to the airport on it? Were pleasantly surprised to been offered a free bottle of water, a breath mint, the use of the cranking sound system via the aux cable? Were you shocked that the driver got to your house before you managed to get out the front door? That the end of the trip involved just getting out and walking away, while you pondered whether to tip the driver by giving them a 5-star rating? It all seems a bit too good to be true...so you ask the question I get asked every night: Are you guys doing OK out of this?

At this question, I usually pause, reflectively. The 5-star rating seeker in me, that customer service-oriented inner voice, screams caution. This might not be a question that the rider really wants an honest answer to. What they really want to hear is that somehow, magically, by the power of technology, that we're doing more than OK, we're doing famously. They really want to believe that I love everything about the job, and by proxy, that I love them. That this is that magic win-win promised by futuristic technology, that new economy that we all think must be just around the corner.

I'm pretty sure what they don't want to hear is a long-winded discussion of the economics of driving a taxi. It's an old, established and quite boring industry, and a discussion that many of us have had once before with a particularly animated and boring, probably racist, old taxi driver in a trip where we made the mistake of being bored and asking about his life. Surely Uber has nothing to do with that?

But unfortunately, I'm a really bad liar. So I give the best truth that I can manage: I don't know for sure. The reason is because it's complicated. When your business involves a fairly random process like picking up rides, and the prices are also fairly random due to surge pricing, and the competition for it, and your costs are things that take a long time to get a handle on, and the number of customers and competing drivers is in constant flux, the honest truth is that it's hard to be sure.

It was hard to be sure before I began the job, too. Uber staff never made any promises. They just said that the long run averages were $30/hour. Of course I asked "Before or after my costs?", to which they answered "Ummm. Before. You're responsible for your costs, they're all different, so we don't know those". They could guess at most of them, but they don't. There's probably quite a good reason for that. The story isn't one they'd want to be telling you.

I was hoping to make this a data driven post, full of the statistics I've been collecting, but unfortunately, that kind of thing takes time, and the many people sending us those numbers need to be given a bit more time to finish their work.

Us? Who is us? Well, it's pretty much the large group of drivers who are furious and ropeable about Uber deciding without consultation to just drop the prices. The number of different ways of expressing the concept of being anally violated that I've heard in the last 3 weeks surpasses all of my life beforehand. Mostly this is because English is not the mother tongue of most of those expressing the sentiment, so it gets that strange flavour of something you know is an expression in another language, mangled in translation into something even more lurid.

Yes, the vast bulk of drivers who have anything to say about it at all, have nothing good to say about it. They feel as the local dairy owner might if their supplier came in and said that they were going to put all of the prices in the shop down by 20%, but weren't going to charge any less for the goods to you. You just have to suck up a much lower margin, because obviously demand will rise to fill the gap. Oh, and at the same time, we're also opening about 300 new dairies, in unzoned residential areas, to help meet all that demand. They tell you this as they walk around your shop putting your prices down.

So, since I can't fill you with data goodness just yet, I'll just give you my n=1 data, which is all that most of us have, since we've never been organized as a group before. My own long run average hourly rate for working pretty much only the dodgiest busiest hours on offer has been $27 paid out before costs. Taking off 15% GST, 5% for my PSL, 20% for the cost of gas and maintenance, we're down to $17.56/hour before any fixed costs.

Then there's compliance costs, insurance and depreciation costs on top of all that. I can't even break those down to an hour rate at this point, but my best guess is coming to an hourly rate of around $14 before tax. I have a particularly cheap car, so my insurance and depreciation costs are much less than would be normal. I would be surprised if anyone leasing a newish vehicle was getting much more than $10/hour before tax.

At this point, if I've been pressed, there's often a slight gagging noise into the free water that I forgot to put in there as a cost. This doesn't sound like the space-age miracle that somehow turned a well paid job (taxi driving used to be considered well-paid) into really well paid job. Quite the opposite, it sounds like a space-age miracle that has somehow turned a well paid job into a poorly paid one with much better service.

The cynical will usually leave it at that. It's a believable story - why should taxis not be exploited? Surely that tallies with noticing that 99% of them are driven by people who are clearly immigrants, often with poor English? Aren't they always exploited? But there's the strange anomaly of being driven by a guy who is clearly well educated and local. What's that about?

When pressed as to why it is that I'm not earning 10 times as much money doing something else, the answer is actually much less difficult. It's because I value the ability to pick the time that I work very highly, and Uber gives a flexibility around that like nothing else I've ever done. I'm a really busy guy, I just don't have time for part time jobs that would demand shift hours from me. I can't fit that in with my other commitments at the moment. It's a short term thing, probably. And as I explained in my last post, it's actually pretty enjoyable work, for me.

This is only tenable for someone who already has money, as I do, and whose partner has a job. For the other guys, that 95-99%, it's not tenable. They are making below minimum wage, and all the flexibility to pick their hours gives them is the ability to pick far more hours than people really should be working in a job operating a dangerous machine. They don't complain to customers because the rating system means that they literally risk their only job by complaining.

So, I think I'll go with my favorite tactic recently, in answer to your question. "How am I doing? A lot better since you got in! How are you doing? Do you mind DJing? I'm a bit over my playlist".

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