For the past half-year, San Francisco-based ride-hailing company Uber has been trying to mend what at times has been a strained relationship with its drivers.
After years of complaints from drivers that the company was not adequately supporting them, Uber from June until the end of last year changed policies and added features to its smartphone application that the company promoted as benefiting drivers in Austin and throughout the rest of its U.S. markets.
The changes, which included adding a tipping option for passengers, creating a 24/7 driver hotline, increased pay for certain trips and revamping the driver rating system, have come amid a wider company realignment during the arrival of a new CEO and as the company aims to improve what has reportedly been low retention rates for its roughly 3 million active drivers around the world.
The question is: Do drivers believe the program, which Uber named “180 Days of Change,” made a difference?
Some Austin-area Uber drivers say the changes reflect Uber finally listening to its workforce as the company tries to improve its image.
“These were changes that everyone wanted anyway, whether you were a driver or a customer,” said Duane Waits, 41, an Uber driver in Austin who started driving for the company in 2014. “It’s good for them to try and set a new pace. This is what people wanted for the most part.”
Other drivers, though, said some of the added features, such as tipping, should have been in place from the start.
Timothy Reece, 35, who has driven for Uber since 2015, said Uber’s previous attitude toward drivers felt insulting at times.
Uber’s chief competitor Lyft, for example, offered tipping before Uber even though Lyft is a smaller and younger company. Drivers also questioned Uber’s view of them after a video surfaced last February of former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick arguing with an Uber driver over price changes.
In Austin, Uber created a rift with drivers when it left the market in May of 2016 because of a then-existing local ordinance that required ride-hailing companies to fingerprint background check their drivers, a rule Uber opposed. Uber returned to Austin last May after the ordinance was revoked through a new state law.
“This is an industry that popped up out of nowhere, so it’s a learning process for them and us,” Reece said. “All of these (changes) are great, but they were kind of necessary. It was stuff that should have been implemented anyway.”
By email, Uber spokesman Travis Considine said the company asked drivers what changes they desired before creating the program.
“We engaged drivers to get a clear sense of where we could do better and where we were falling short,” he said. “We listened to their concerns and made changes based on what drivers told us they cared about.”
Drivers say they are seeking even more changes.
Since Uber was founded in 2008, drivers have worked not as employees but as contractors, a system that allows flexibility for both Uber and its workforce but that also frees Uber from having to give certain benefits.
While some drivers like the system, others such as Reece say they’d welcome more formal employment, or at least an option for drivers to own stock in the private company.
Some drivers also want to see new systems at the local level. Belinda Gonzalez, 57, who has driven for Uber and UberEats in Austin for about two years, said both drivers and customers would benefit from Uber negotiating with Austin city leaders on designated pickup spots throughout Austin.
Other drivers also said continued efforts by Uber to improve driver policies will be important, and some drivers also expressed a desire for greater transparency from the company. Uber, for example, still does not fully disclose how it calculates certain fees.
At Uber, employees are working toward more changes this year for both drivers and customers, Considine said. The 180 Days of Change campaign, he said, was just the beginning of Uber’s plan.
“We’ll be the first to admit we didn’t act quickly enough on the things drivers care about,” Considine said in an email. “The biggest shift as part of 180 is a recognition that we need to look after drivers so they can take care of riders -- which in turn grows our ridership so that we both succeed. It’s about finding shared success, and making Uber work -- and work well -- for everyone in the ecosystem, riders and drivers.
“We are dedicated to finding success together and committed to delivering on the promise of a true partnership, 365 days a year.”
Here are some highlights from the changes Uber made:
- In-app tipping option, driver injury protection, driver cancellation option after waiting five minutes at a pickup location
- 24/7 driver hotline, exclusion of low rating from overall driver rating if low rating was made due to a problem out of the driver’s control (cost of trip, GPS issue, etc.), streamlined driver application process
- In-app notifications if trip will last longer than 45 minutes (based off GPS information), drivers declining trips no longer affecting driver account standing
- Toll fees incorporated into pay, added pay for certain trips, customer cancellation fee beginning to include fee for distance driver travelled before ride was cancelled
- GPS location option for riders, so that drivers see how far away they are from the pickup location, ride-enabled request for a guest rider, so that drivers know if they are picking up more than one person