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SAN FRANCISCO — Uber on Tuesday announced it would cap a six-month initiative to make drivers happier with an all-expenses-paid opportunity to meet the ride-hailing company’s new CEO.
In all, Uber’s 180 Days of Change campaign rolled out 38 largely tech-based innovations for its 750 million U.S. and Canadian drivers, or about a third of its 2 million total. The initiative is an effort to improve its at-times fractious relationship with the independent contractors at the core of its operation as it simultaneously works on self-driving alternatives.
But while Uber’s tweaks show the company is listening, conversations with drivers suggest their biggest concern has yet to be tackled: better pay.
“Uber has made a lot of small changes to gain driver trust, but the most important thing for us is higher rates,” says Harry Campbell, a driver who runs the The Ride Share Guy website. “They haven’t done a whole lot to move those needles.”
Uber’s driver initiative kicked off in June as executives were immersed in accusations of both running a sexist workplace and pushing dishonest business practices that led to the departure of cofounder and CEO Travis Kalanick.
More recently, the company found itself in hot water for paying hackers $100,000 to hide a massive data breach, and in London court fighting to keep its service there operational.
Among the 180 Days of Change changes were improvements to the platform’s ratings system, clearer interactions with riders and a streamlining of UberPOOL routes. But the biggest changes by far included the addition of tipping, a longtime staple of rival Lyft, as well as the creation of a round-the-clock driver hotline.
Rachel Holt, who leads U.S. and Canadian operations for Uber, said that so far riders have tipped drivers $200 million since July, and the hotline has fielded more than 2 million calls.
“It’s a snapshot and a start,” said Holt. “In the future, we want to be ultra clear in our commitment to build the best possible experience for drivers.”
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On Tuesday Uber unveils a new In-App Feedback feature, which gives drivers the ability to ping Uber directly with questions, and an Early Tester Program designed to get driver reactions to features before are rolled out. Uber also is launching a Driver Advisory Forum that will bring around two dozen drivers to headquarters for meetings with CEO Dara Khosrowshahi twice a year beginning Jan. 16.
Holt said that Khosrowshahi had a roundtable meeting with Bay Area drivers in his first weeks as CEO back in September, and “it’s remained a priority for him in 2017.”
Throughout the year, ride-hailing drivers have been in the spotlight — and not for entirely positive reasons.
A New Jersey man who killed eight people with his truck on Halloween was found to have been an Uber and Lyft driver; both companies have said that nothing in his profile would have suggested a murderous turn.
In November, Colorado fined Uber $8.9 million for keeping 57 drivers on the platform despite histories that should have disqualified them as drivers. And last week, a 77-year-old Dallas woman sued Uber claiming her 40-year-driver with a history of family violence had raped her.
Uber’s new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi addressing his new team at Uber’s San Francisco headquarters in late August.
“As we think about safety, vetting is critical,” said Holt, although she did not detail any new changes to the vetting process, which includes includes a background and DMV check but no finger printing. “We can use our technology to help ensure Uber is safe.”
Holt noted that one of the 180 Days of Change additions was the ability for drivers to share their location with a loved one through the app.
Louisville driver Leon Melton said he is pleased with the changes Uber has made in recent months — “It seems like they’re listening to us more” — although he would prefer if the tipping function appeared as more than a delicate suggestion. “We’re servers, you should tip us,” he said.
Melton, a 42-year-old single father who “would be homeless if not for Uber,” said he would welcome a more stringent vetting process that includes fingerprinting.
“When I hear these stories (about drivers), I feel bad for both drivers and for riders,” he said. “My and my customers’ safety is my number one priority. I hope it’s Uber’s too.”
Las Vegas driver Don Rubenstein also said he senses a shift in corporate culture at Uber. “It seems more transparent then before, when an old leadership was all about secrets,” he said.
But Rubenstein noted that he remained unconvinced Uber’s driver changes would impact his bottom line. “We were told that we’d be paid more our waiting times, and more making longer drives (to pick up passengers), but I don’t really see those fare details show up in my pay,” he said. (In October, Uber began paying drivers for both waiting and long pick-up drives at rate that is market dependent.)
Uber added the self-driving Volvos to its fleet in San Francisco late last year.
When it comes to goosing income, tipping would seem to be the quickest solution. Rubenstein says before Uber instituted tipping, around 75% of his passengers would tip in him cash. “I’d now say 8 in 10 tip me through the app,” he said.
Melton said he is tipped by between 40% and 60% of his riders, “but what they tip is random.” His biggest tip to date was $200 in cash for getting a rider to a meeting on time. “That made my day,” he said.
Blogger Campbell said his impression from fellow drivers is that while the millions in tips is impressive in total, the percentage of riders who tip likely varies greatly.
“I’m hearing it’s less than 10% in some cases, when compared to taxis and services like (food delivery) Door Dash, where around 90% of people tip,” said Campbell. “Uber says you’re their partners as drivers, but it’s rare that you feel like a partner.”
Campbell also has an issue with the various bonus systems Uber has in place. “You have to drive with their guidelines, in certain areas, and during certain times,” he said, requirements that sometimes require long hours at the wheel.
Uber is now letting drivers share their ongoing locations with friends and loved ones.
Aaron Schildkrout, Uber’s head of driver product, acknowledges that making millions of drivers happy remains a challenge for the hundreds of employees tasked with this mission.
“Rachel and I are in an active, open dialog with many drivers through many forums and channels,” he said. “Certainly there are drivers who remain frustrated, and we remain committed to continuing to invest in improving their experience.”
Schildkrout, Holt and a number of other top Uber executives regularly take turns driving for Uber to try and get a better understanding of the issues they’re trying to address.
San Francisco Bay Area Uber riders may want to note that his group soon will be joined by a more senior leader. Taking a page from Lyft President John Zimmer, CEO Khosrowshahi will take a turn behind the wheel sometime in January.
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