Your Private Driver: Not in Service

This is a weekly column that offers news, insights, analysis, and user tips for rideshare platforms like Uber and Lyft. Look for it every Tuesday after the live show, right here on

You’ve just called an Uber to your quiet suburban home, getting ready to take your significant other out on the town for a night. The car is about 11 minutes away according to the app’s estimate, which should give you just enough time for a last-minute–the phone rings. You don’t recognize the number, but this late at night it can’t be just a random solicitor, can it?

Your Uber driver is on the other end of the line, asking about your destination. That’s weird, you put the destination into the app, they should already know where you’re going, shouldn’t they? You tell them again. They respond with some flimsy excuse about your destination not being in the right direction and say that you should cancel the trip and request another Uber. Annoyed and with the realization that your car won’t be coming to pick you up after all, you start to cancel, then remember that you’ll be charged a five-dollar fee if you do. You’re not paying that, it’s not your fault the driver flaked on you! The driver can cancel it on their own… but several minutes later you realize they don’t appear to have any intention of doing so. You can’t request another car until someone cancels the trip, and your night is slipping away. Angrily you cancel the trip, making a mental note to contest the charges later, then request another Uber… this time with a 17-minute ETA. Grumbling, you call to make a later dinner reservation.

Uber has made it a point of pride to talk about how well their UberX cars provide better service to the neighborhoods than traditional taxicabs ignore, particularly low-income and minority neighborhoods. Uber wants every ride request, regardless of origin or destination, to be a matched with a willing driver. For the most part, this still happens. After two rounds of drastic rate cuts since last year however, drivers have been finding ways to “profile” potential fares and refuse the ones that have a high risk of being unprofitable.

I say “high risk” because contrary to prevailing knowledge, Uber and Lyft drivers don’t know where a passenger is going until they start the trip, which means their riders are probably already in the back seat. This leads to situations like the scenario that opened this article (which Uber discourages with threats of deactivation, by the way). Drivers will more frequently refuse to accept trips (known as letting a ping time out) originating from certain areas that are too far away or don’t have surge pricing applied. Drivers can’t be deactivated for not accepting requests, though Uber will give them a “time out” if they decline three in a row or so.

What are these so-called unprofitable fares that drivers like to avoid? Most commonly avoided are trips with long ETAs. A pickup more than 10 or 15 minutes away will almost certainly result in a net loss for a driver if the rider is taking a short trip (and most trips are indeed quite short). Drivers aren’t paid for the distance it takes to pick a passenger up, only the distance it takes to drop them off. Basically the farther away you are from Uber hot-spots like nightclub districts, the more likely you are to have your trip profiled or rejected by one or two drivers before one eventually accepts.

Pickup requests near airports are another problem. If you need to be picked up at any place close to a major airport, most or all of the nearby drivers will be waiting in line for their shot at a (likely) long-distance run from one of the disembarking passengers. They’re not going to want to leave their place in line to gamble on ping from a nearby hotel or office park.

Finally there’s UberPOOL, which an increasing number of drivers are refusing to accept altogether. I won’t get into why UberPOOL is so disliked, but if you’re curious there’s a previous article that covers the subject somewhat in depth.

Unfortunately, as a passenger there’s not much you can do if your trip falls into one of these high-risk categories. Drivers place their need to make money above your need to get to where you want to go in an efficient manner (though even other drivers get annoyed with the tactics used at times). Uber occasionally offers incentives to entice drivers to complete more trips than they ignore, but those are gradually ending in the wake of the company’s massive hemorrhaging of capital that it blames on those same incentives. They could raise rates, but that would take Uber out of reach of the lower-income users the company is trying to court in order to expand its market dominance.  They could make their drivers employees instead of independent contractors, but there’s no way that’ll happen, not with all the money they’re spending on court cases to prevent that outcome. Drivers themselves suggest promising a cash tip for their time. It sounds like bribery, but it does cut cleanly through the problem of income versus expenses.

At the end of the day, you may just have to plan on waiting a bit longer for an Uber to pick you up than you were expecting. And if you’re willing to wait long enough, self-driving cars that don’t care about how much money they’re making individually will replace all those pesky humans that need to pay their bills.  Problem solved. Eventually.

Sekani Wright is an experienced Uber 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!