Tech + Health

07.07.14

Uber’s Battle Against Its Drivers Continues

It may seem like a simple fare cut. But UberX’s latest price drop is the latest in a series of skirmishes between the ride-sharing firm and the people providing those rides.

UberX, the low-cost version of the popular ride-sharing app, is now cheaper in New York City than a taxi. That’s good news for customers, who will save $2 on a ride. But it’s bad news for uberX drivers, who have caused trouble for the company that seems ambivalent, at best, about them.

In an announcement (by way of blog post) Monday, Uber said: “From Brooklyn to the Bronx, and everywhere in between, uberX is now the most affordable ride in the city.” The change, the post advised, is only in effect for a limited time, but “the more you ride, the more likely we can keep them this low!” New York Magazine’s Kevin Roose noted that such price-slashing experiments in other cities have lasted for a few months.

In the post, Uber referred to drivers as “partners.” This is something Uber does to advertise itself to people who might sign up to provide rides for the firm. But when it comes down to how the company actually treats these people it purports to be in partnership with, things appear to be quite different.

When Uber faced regulatory problems regarding its Uber Taxi service (a regular taxi, but hailed via the Uber app), and it was forced to stop offering the option to customers, Uber drivers were reportedly tricked into coming into Uber HQ, where they were then fired. “Multiple drivers said Uber called them into headquarters, claiming they needed to come by in order to get paid and would get a cash bonus for showing up. When the cabbies came in, Uber surprised them by asking for the device back [note: drivers are given a smartphone so that they can use the app], informing them that taxi service was no longer available in New York.” (Uber Taxi has since been welcomed back to NYC.)

And CEO Travis Kalanick himself has expressed a desire to get rid of Uber’s beloved “partner” drivers altogether. “The reason Uber is expensive is not the car, it’s the other dude in the car. When there’s no dude in the car, the cost of taking the vehicle somewhere becomes cheaper than owning a vehicle. And then car ownership goes away.” Dude I would like to get rid of entirely, “partner”—same thing.

In its Monday post, the company acknowledged concerns about uberX drivers, writing: “what we’ve seen in cities across the country is that lower fares mean great demand, lower pickup times and more trips per hour—increasing earning potential and creating better economics for drivers. What does that mean in the long run? They’ll be making more than ever!” I’m sure they will just be rolling in it.

And forget about kindness to drivers who are not working for Uber. In January, Uber decided to show a rival company, Gett, who the ride-sharing boss is by creating fake accounts with Gett, ordering rides, and then canceling them. Sam Biddle of Valleywag reported that Uber’s general manager in New York personally “ordered and cancelled at least twenty Gett rides.”

Uber referred to drivers as “partners.” But when it comes down to how the company actually treats these people it purports to be in partnership with, things appear to be quite different.

Reached for comment regarding uberX’s new low rates, a spokesperson for the NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission provided The Daily Beast with a very polite statement: “with shared economy and new technologies offering riders more transportation options, we are committed to maintaining high standards for safety and consumer protection. As long as services meet those standards, the consumer can choose which service best serves their needs, whether based on price, vehicle type, base location, or something else entirely.”

But others are not so kind. Uber has found itself in battles with Big Taxi and regulators across the country. To combat hostility, Uber has armed itself with political consultants, lobbyists, and is even in the process of hiring an actual campaign manager. Still, all the political muscle in the world won’t be able to quash concerns about safety. And uberX, in particular, has raised some red flags.

It was an uberX driver who hit and killed a 6-year-old San Francisco girl on New Year’s Eve. The family of the girl is suing Uber, who claims it’s not liable for damages because the driver did not have a passenger in the car.

It was an uberX driver who was charged with fondling a passenger in Chicago in March.

And it was an uberX driver who was accused of physically assaulting a passenger in San Francisco just last month. That driver has a felony conviction.

Reached for comment about the background check process for uberX drivers, a spokesperson for Uber said it is “rigorous” and “leads the industry.” Asked, then, how a driver with a felony conviction could have slipped through the cracks, the spokesperson said “this driver had a clean background check.” Which seems a little south of rigorous.