On the final day of 2022, the Uber newsroom released a recap of what the company had done that year to “make drivers’ time on the app even better,” emphasizing the company’s belief in “listening to drivers” and bringing “their ideas to life.”
When Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi proudly shared the article on Twitter, however, Uber drivers reacted quickly and sharply.
“How do you feel about your drivers going on strike because they can’t earn a living in pennies per mile?” one comment read. Other drivers complained about being deactivated from the platform, frustrated with the language barrier in communications, or dissatisfaction with a new billing method Khosrowshahi championed in his Tweet.
Nicole Moore, president of Los Angeles-based gig worker group Rideshare Drivers United and a part-time driver, found the article perplexing.
The article, “Bring Drivers’ Feedback to Life in 2022,” includes a photo of what appears to be a group discussion of Uber employees listening to several drivers. “Who could they possibly talk to?” Moore asked. “All drivers know that the pay has gone down. It’s true for part-time drivers, as well.”
Moore said that, even when the article isn’t blatantly deceptive, it’s full of carefully woven half-truths. Despite Uber’s claims about reinforcing transparency and maximizing drivers’ earning potential, Moore said, “the truth is, they’re minimizing transparency and drivers’ earnings potential.”
An earlier version of this article said that Uber declined to comment. That was an editing error and, in fact, Uber asked for clarification. Since then, Uber has responded. It stands behind the veracity of its 2022 recap on the driver experience and says the accusations about it are “not indicative of the experience of the tens of thousands of Californians who come to the platform for flexible work.”
Mission Local did not interview tens of thousands of Californians, but we have been following Uber for some time, riding in Uber cars and talking to Uber drivers at random. What we have found from this small, but often random sample size is a consistently different point of view.
“All I can say is it was getting worse and worse,” Alex Song, an Uber driver since 2018, told Mission Local about his 2022 experience with Uber. “The more I drove, the more bitterly disappointed I felt.”
Veena Dubal, a professor at the University of California’s Hastings College of Law, finds it “comical” to read these types of press releases from Uber. “Because I think it’s sort of common knowledge that their practices are pretty exploitative that they are some of the worst employers in the service economy,” said the labor law expert. (Uber’s recap claims that “We look forward to continuing to make Uber the best platform for flexible work.”)
“The reality is that drivers are earning much less than they should be earning, [and] working conditions have become much worse since the passage of Proposition 22 for many people,” Dubal said.
In her opinion, it is no coincidence that Uber issued such an article at this time; rather, it’s part of a larger plan to shape public opinion. “Historically, at every turn, where Uber is facing regulatory intervention, they create a narrative around how things are so much better,” Dubal said, noting that Uber had offered drivers more control over their rides during the Prop. 22 campaign, but all of that tools were taken away shortly after Prop. 22 passed.
“Right now, Prop. 22 is in the appellate court (awaiting a verdict, which will be rendered by mid-March). They’re trying to influence how the judicial system thinks about the work that the drivers do, and the kinds of labor conditions that the drivers are experiencing,” she said.
1. Upfront Fares
Upfront Fares is a feature launched in the second half of 2022, which shows how much drivers will earn before accepting a trip. Uber’s in-house recap touts it as helping to “reimagine how drivers earn by showing how much they’ll make” while contributing to flexibility, transparency and choice.
That is true, but it’s not the whole truth.
Drivers don’t see this as an improvement. “To be able to see the price, destination, and distance beforehand, and when and where there is surge, these are the information that Uber should have given to us drivers,” said Uber driver Song. “Uber claims to be in partnership with us, so we have the right to know all this information.”
Not only that; for many drivers, Upfront Fares actually turned 2022 into a nightmare.
“Upfront Fares sounds awesome. But it is not what it says,” said Moore. “This is a normal ‘war is peace,’ George Orwellian sort of framing.”
“As sad as it is, before upfront fares, we had a rate card, which said how much we would earn per mile, and how much per minute. … But nonetheless, those rate cards disappeared with upfront fares,” she added.
“I think it’s quite clear from my own research that workers had been very unhappy with the move to upfront pricing,” said Dubal. Without a guaranteed pricing formula based on a fixed rate per mile and per minute that once determined a ride’s revenue, Uber’s pay algorithm has become a black box and seems like a way to control drivers, “where they have no idea what’s happening or not happening, and they have no power.”
In Dubal’s conversations with drivers, Uber’s move to Upfront Fares actually became the biggest complaint. “Drivers felt like their wages were slashed, and they didn’t understand anymore how the base fare was determined,” she said.
The opaque Upfront Fares, many drivers said, often results in “trash trips” or trips not worth the bother. In some cases, the compensation reported in Upfront Fares is even lower than the prescribed minimum under rate cards, at less than 50 cents per mile. When this happens, driving is “basically volunteer work,” said Moore.
A Reddit post concerning Upfront Fares said, “This is a very dark hole that you can go down, but it really makes me realize the power Uber has now over its drivers.”
2. Helping drivers go electric
In 2021, California passed legislation requiring rideshare companies like Uber to conduct 90 percent of its trips in electric vehicles (EVs) by 2030. In the recap, Uber also talks about its efforts to help drivers access EVs, including a rental partnership with Hertz that enables drivers to rent Tesla vehicles. The recap also mentioned the Green Future Program, which provides drivers an extra dollar per trip as an incentive to use fully electric vehicles.
Moore finds the rhetoric amusing. “That’s awesome,” she said in a sarcastic way. “So, thank you very much.”
For her, the “Rent a Tesla for $334/week” ad is a castle in the air. “There are taxes and everything else on the rentals. And people have told me that they’re paying upwards of $500 a week to rent these cars,” she said, which leaves EVs far out of the price range of many drivers.
Drivers in a Chinese WeChat group of 500 Bay Area Uber and Lyft drivers echoed what Moore described. One driver said, “Renting a Tesla through Hertz is a pit. The ad said it costs just over $300 for a week, but adding up all the odds and ends adds up to over $500.” Another said, “I rented one for a week, and it was more than $600. I’d rather just buy one.”
The $1 per mile awarded by the Green Future Program might also be “a shell game.”
Uber may simply be redirecting the money saved from drivers’ pay cuts to this subsidy. “Now, they can set the price whatever they want,” said Moore. “So there really isn’t additional money. Without a rate card, there is no control that we have over any of this, and they just make up the numbers.”
“The way that the companies can help drivers go electric is to actually pay us decent wages. And, right now, there’s no such thing,” said Moore.
“The most exciting feature, an in-app dash cam that can record both video and audio on trips, is the direct result of listening to driver feedback,” the recap said.
Drivers, however, are not that excited.
First, giving the company access to their cars 24/7 makes drivers feel their privacy is being invaded, Moore said. And, strangely enough, none of the California drivers Mission Local spoke with knew about this new in-app dash cam. One of them even said that, out of distrust of Uber, it would mean buying an extra phone if the Uber app ever did request camera access for monitoring.
On top of that, any dispute with riders is still likely to end the driver’s career with Uber, as Uber doesn’t always accept the dash cam footage as evidence of the driver’s innocence, according to Moore. “What they’re saying now,” said Moore, “is, ‘Well, as long as we have 24/7 access to monitoring you at all times, okay, maybe we’ll use that.”
Furthermore, when Uber writes, “Safety is always top of mind, and 2022 was no different,” the fundamental issue affecting driver safety remains unaddressed.
“We still do not have the identity of the passenger in our car,” said Moore. Drivers receive a name and an image of the rider, but there is no way to guarantee that this is the person who crawls into the car. Maybe somebody else ordered the ride. Also, the driver has no way of knowing if the passenger has been marked as unsafe, or prone to harassing the driver.
For its part, Uber said the cameras are a pilot program available in only three cities and it is waiting for feedback from the pilot.
“We designed our in-app recording feature with privacy in mind and have been clear that Uber cannot access any recordings unless the driver chooses to share them with Uber,” an Uber spokesperson said adding that these facts on the features are publicly available. “It is at the discretion of the driver to submit video footage to us in an incident report. If a driver chooses not to share footage, Uber has no access to it,” the spokesperson said.
“In 2022, we introduced an in-app feature that makes it easier for drivers and couriers to dispute an eligible account deactivation,” the recap said.
The California drivers Mission Local spoke with, however, don’t even know about the button that they can use to post a dispute.
On top of that, to Moore, the phrase sounds like a subtle play on words. “To me, that’s absolutely meaningless,” said Moore. “What is an ‘eligible account deactivation?’ And who is the judge and jury? There’s absolutely a deactivation appeals process that’s controlled by the company.”
Deactivation remains a nightmare for most drivers, or, as Moore called it, a “company-controlled Kangaroo court.” Often, drivers have no opportunity to defend themselves, and find the system stacked against them. “What we need is an external appeals process that is controlled by a neutral party, which [now] we do not have access to, unless we go to court,” she said.
5. Clearly see how much customers paid
The Uber article reads, “This year, we also revamped and simplified drivers’ earnings statements, so drivers can clearly see how much customers paid.”
Previously, Uber drivers were able to see how much customers had paid right after each ride on the driver’s app, along with other statistics relevant to the ride. But, sometime last summer, the “customer payments” feature on the app disappeared, and now, “you have to kind of dig down, but you cannot see it on the Uber app,” said Moore.
Meanwhile, according to a local experiment by Mission Local, Uber started to give drivers a smaller share of the money they received from customers. Uber drivers kept 49.5 percent, on average, marking a six-percent drop from 2021.
What Moore has observed echoes this trend. Unlike a traditional cab fare, Uber driver’s share of the money seems to be gradually decoupled from the amount of money paid by the passenger. “They have continued to reduce the amount of the fare that drivers receive,” she said. “When I started with the company, I was guaranteed 80 percent of the fare. At this point, people are getting 50 percent, at the most. And honestly, I’ve even seen lower than 20 percent of the fare.”