The right back end of the Lexus is mangled, its parts exposed as haphazardly as a crash victim on a gurney. Benny Huang knows the mechanical mess well.
“Half of our clients are Uber and Lyft drivers,” one of his salespeople told Mission Local over the phone. Okay, maybe not half, but they have become increasingly important to his A&K Supreme Auto Shop in South San Francisco.
An immigrant from Guangdong Province, China, just like many other Chinese immigrants in the area, 36-year-old Huang started out in the mailroom of a law firm. There, a veteran legal assistant helped him master the skills of negotiating with vehicle insurance companies. That was his entry to opening A&K in 2018.
To begin, he primarily bought and sold secondhand cars to international students. But those students, by and large, left during the pandemic, and an influx of ride-share drivers, nearly a hundred per year, partially saved Huang’s business.
His newest clients have given Huang a unique repository of rideshare data.
Mileage per year? An average of 100,000. At first this seems comparable to the 80,000 to 125,000 miles a year a full-time truck driver logs, but factor in the city congestion and the time wasted waiting for orders and riders, and the mileage becomes grueling.
Huang calculates that a driver racking up 100,000 miles a year is doing at least 12 hours per day of pure driving. He’s incredulous, but knows that some cases are more extreme. “There was this one Uber [and Lyft] driver who drove 250,000 miles in the two years between 2020 and 2022, or 125,000 miles per year,” Huang said, in his nondescript jacket and jeans.
But they also come in for visible, cosmetic work, because if a rider reports damage to the platform, drivers can have their accounts deactivated, which is pretty much the end of the world for many.
All of these repairs lead to expensive work that drivers need to pay out of pocket (additional personal auto insurance that some drivers buy will be of some help).
Given these costs, it’s no surprise that the drivers are price-sensitive. Sometimes they even emphasize cheap fixes instead of quality work, which presumably puts them in a position for more problems.
While Huang has dealt with several female drivers who work punishing hours, most of his clients are monolingual Chinese men in their 30s and 40s. They drive in silence for a dozen hours a day; their primary means of communication is a constant stream of messages with other drivers. They are the first to know who has had another accident.
The pace of their work can leave them frantic and impatient on repairs.
The cars wheeled into his garage, orange peels and lunch boxes strewn on the carpeting, have generally been rear-ended or hit on the front, damage that takes a month to repair. They want their cars now.
“But I haven’t had the car repaired yet; how can I return it to you?” Huang blurts out to explain his predicament. Often the drivers are in such a hurry that they’ll only be talked down by an excuse about some external pressure, such as an intransigent insurance company or supply chain problem.
In most instances, once the vehicle is towed off the scene of an accident it passes by Huang’s A&K, which is situated barely 0.1 miles off US-101. “Most collisions occur on highways,” said the 12-year veteran of the body shop business. “What I need are collisions.”
To date, the most serious accident Huang has seen with a ride-hailing vehicle was one that rolled over on the road. But he couldn’t do anything for that one. The driver had to get a new car.
If Huang feels drivers’ impatience, he also sees drivers stressed to work.
While their cars are sitting in Huang’s garage, many immediately jump to other jobs: delivering for Amazon or online grocery delivery platform Weee!, because these platforms offer vehicles to their drivers.
Huang recalls one driver with three cars who alternated driving for Uber and Lyft. At one point, all three were in Huang’s garage, either for repair or pending repair. “I asked him, ‘Isn’t this wearing you down?’” said Huang, but he didn’t receive an answer.
While he sympathizes, the inherent pressure also means the drivers who helped save his business are also Huang’s most troublesome customers. Thanks to word-of-mouth in a Chinese Wechat group of 500 Bay Area drivers, Huang has become the go-to guy for Chinese drivers. Every time the shop came up in discussion, however, Huang would go quiet, hesitant about how to phrase his mixed feelings. “I don’t always like dealing with them. They keep pushing me to get their cars back ahead of schedule,” he added.
To make the relationship even more difficult, most drivers, he says, have trouble building trust outside their own communities, and come with low expectations. “Insider tips” available on a popular resource website for rideshare drivers doesn’t help. “Most mechanics or body shops are banking on you to fail your inspection so that they can sell you new parts as a solution to get you on the road as soon as possible.”
“I used to say to my employees, ‘They grew up being cheated,’” Huang said, which means he and his staff have to work extra hard to gain their trust.
Huang’s English skills, developed over the past 17 years dealing with people of all kinds, offer a way in. “They basically don’t know English at all,” Huang said. “As long as you know English and are willing to help make a few phone calls, they will always come to you. Helping fill out a few forms is already helping them a lot,” he said.
The Lexus being fixed on the day I arrived will be done in a couple of weeks, he said.
When it became clear that I was staying on to interview drivers, Huang punctured my expectations.
“You won’t see them here; they’re all too busy making money.”