Your Private Driver: More Days of Change

This is a weekly column that offers news, insights, analysis, and user tips for transportation network company (TNC) platforms like Uber and Lyft. Well, usually weekly, but the author has been somewhat preoccupied with a new job, new intensive schedule, and preparing to move in a couple of weeks. He apologizes for the lack of content updates.

Uber has launched into its second month of the 180 Days of Change campaign focused on improving the company’s strained relationship with its driver-partners. The first wave of changes was focused on earnings, and included the introduction of in-app tipping, among other improvements. This month, the theme is support, and I want to go over some of the major changes and how they could affect the rider experience.

The biggest new feature of the month is the addition of 24/7 phone support. This is a huge step as Uber has been up until now a company that is notoriously hard to get a hold of. But now, drivers can be connected to a real live human at the touch of a button for issues ranging from app glitches to vomiting riders. On the down side, the agents answering the phone lines are all in Uber’s outsourced call center in the Philippines, and on average I’ve received about the same level of helpfulness that I’ve gotten from in-app and email support (which is to say, not much). Still, with a response time of around two minutes, it definitely gets faster (non-)results.

What does this mean for riders, though? Presently, not much; contacting Uber is still limited to in-app communication, though if this program goes well there’s some hope that it could be rolled out to users as well. I’m sure everyone would love a better way to complain about that driver who drove in the wrong direction while refusing to cancel.

The next major feature is ratings protection. This is meant to invalidate low ratings from passengers that are caused by situations out of the driver’s control, like surge pricing or just about anything having to do with UberPOOL. Riders will also be prompted to give a reason for the lower rating; complaints about the fare or slow POOL trips will assumedly be excluded from a driver’s rating average.

The last major change is the addition of a return fee for lost items. Yes, drivers will now receive a minimum of $15 for going through the effort of returning lost phones and other items. While riders may grouse about the extra fee, it’s safe to assume that they don’t realize how lucky they are to get their stuff returned to them at all, nor how much work is involved in doing so. It’s very rare when an Uber driver is idle enough that they can drop everything to chase someone down because they lost their phone. The driver may be on another fare heading to another part of town, or they may already be at home and off duty. Returning a phone is a pretty major commitment in both time and fuel costs, especially if they live far away from their city’s hot spots. And yes, this is all typically unpaid, unless the phone’s owner is feeling generous. Fifteen bucks seems like fair compensation for all of that extra driving (although I think it should be more in the Los Angeles market just because of the distances regularly involved).

As for Uber’s biggest rival, Lyft, some drivers have been waiting for them to put forth their answer to the 180 Days of Change campaign. Lyft has a reputation for being more friendly to drivers (and riders), so those most loyal to the pink ‘stache are expecting Lyft to follow suit in some way with their own changes. Two of those have been announced, but they’re not quite what anyone expected.

The first is that their Power Driver Bonus program is changing in most markets, and not for the better. Various reports from drivers across the country all report the bonus targets are now much harder to achieve, and in some cases even pay less; whereas you would normally earn a bonus of ten to twenty percent of your total fares for the week, some markets are now offering flat-fare bonuses of around fifty to a hundred dollars. This is less than half of what a dedicated full-time driver would normally take home in bonuses.

The second change… well, it’s just insulting, to be honest. Lyft decided to run a pilot program in Orange County that turns late-night drivers into a mobile Taco Bell. Yes, Lyft, every driver wants to deal with drunk people eating tacos in their car at 2:30 AM. Even worse, this is the same Orange County where an Uber driver was infamously assaulted by a Taco Bell executive. How tone deaf can one company be?

Uber’s 180 Days of Change aren’t over yet, but I’m still waiting to see what Lyft’s proper response will be, if they bother to make one at all. I hope they do, because two companies that want to make their drivers happy are much better than just one. And happy drivers will definitely make for happier TNC experiences for those who call them.

Sekani Wright is an experienced TNC driver working in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. If you have any questions you would like answered for this column, you can contact him at djsekani at gmail dot com, or on twitter and reddit at the username djsekani. Have a safe trip!