I quit: Miseries of an Uber driver

A terrible GPS system and crummy hourly rate while the company reaps huge profits? No more. I’m out

Published November 30, 2014 12:00AM (EST)

  (<a href='http://www.istockphoto.com/profile/dnberty'>dnberty</a> via <a href='http://www.istockphoto.com/'>iStock</a>)
(dnberty via iStock)

Uber just lost a really good driver.

As a mom who had stopped working to raise my child, I decided to try driving for Uber part-time, for flexibility and some extra cash. I am a native English speaker who grew up in my major metropolitan area (San Francisco Bay Area), and these are two big advantages for a driver.  Having actually lived and worked from San Jose to Marin, I know how to get from point A to point B without maps or a GPS,  and I do not have to use Uber’s incredibly bad and misleading GPS, which comes with its driver app.  I also have a brand-new Prius and don't mind keeping it clean.

It took Uber two months to complete my required background check and to “process” my driver's license, proof of insurance and a $20 car inspection.  It took many weeks for Uber to mail me its iPhone 4 (loaded with its app).  I could not begin driving without it — or possibly, I could have used my own iPhone 5, but they didn’t mention that, because they wanted to charge me $10 per week for their iPhone 4.  The minute I found out I could be using my own phone, I sent theirs back, but not before they had deducted $30 for “phone rental.”

As a former software developer, I was interested to see how the apps work together to get the closest driver to the rider as fast as possible.  The first thing I found out was that Uber’s software sometimes wildly underestimates the number of minutes it takes to reach a rider.  The driver has 10 seconds (and sometimes less) to accept a request, which shows the number of minutes to reach the rider.  If you accept the request, you see the address of the rider.  About half the time, the number of minutes estimated is substantially less than the real time it will take.

Let me give you an example. I received a request indicating it would take “three minutes” to reach a rider.  I was in downtown Oakland and the rider was north of the Berkeley campus.  With stoplights and traffic I knew it would take 15-20 minutes to reach the rider.  As I began driving, I phoned the rider and gave him my ETA.  He canceled to try again for a closer driver – and I don’t blame him.

This happened to me over and over again that night.  At one point, I was on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland, and I kept getting ride requests “three minutes” away – that is, three minutes away from Piedmont Avenue in Berkeley.  Could it be possible that Uber’s GPS software does not use map coordinates to calculate distance?  It certainly seemed to be true, considering that this same error happened all night, until I finally logged off in order not to get “dinged” for too many cancellations.

Having accepted a rider, the driver has no idea of the destination.  The rider(s) get in, and tell you where they’re going.  I often had four riders at a time.  Many times, I drove two miles to pick up four college kids and drive them six blocks to a different pub.  This was a typical experience in my college town.  That’s a money-losing ride.

If you accept each ride request sent to you, you will end up a long way from home.  You must then go “offline” and drive home.  This is standard taxi driving – but for less money.

I didn't want to do this job full-time.  Hourly rate is what mattered to me.  Uber kept me very busy, but the software malfunctioned at least 50 percent of the time, leading to cancellations when I let the rider know the real ETA. Uber has lots of hidden charges and fees.  However, since I was driving during "surge" hours, with back-to-back riders, my hourly rate should reflect the best hourly rate one can earn, driving for Uber. Bottom line: After subtracting all their charges and fees — plus Uber’s 20 percent — driving for Uber during surge pricing, with a constant flow of riders, pays less than $10 per hour.  Then you must deduct insurance, fuel, maintenance and taxes.  At least for me, driving for Uber is not worth it. And that’s a shame. Because I know the area, speak English and communicate professionally with riders.  But I also demand closer to $15 per hour.

Also, considering the company's huge profits, Uber owes it to the little guys doing their driving to provide much better software, real-time accurate time estimates, and a usable GPS for drivers who don’t have one in their car.  To initiate a call to the rider, you now have to dial a number.  This should not be necessary.  The driver app should have a button for “call rider.”  Drivers should not have the option to text a rider while driving!  They have one now.

It’s physically painful to read about Uber’s ridiculously high earnings.  They charge less than taxis for the same service, then deduct their 20 percent before paying their drivers.  The driver assumes the expense of insurance, fuel and maintenance.  I can only assume the other drivers have not done the math.  This business model could work, and the quality of drivers would be much better, if Uber reduced its percentage of the take to 10 percent.  That will only happen when enough drivers do as I have done — and quit.

I only tried using Uber as a rider once.  I had to get to a local hospital for minor eye surgery, but I was not supposed to drive myself home.  My first Uber request resulted in an estimated “nine minute” wait.  After waiting 20 minutes, I called the driver, who did not speak any version of English I am familiar with.  He claimed to be relatively near my house but was unable to tell me how he was going to get there.  I canceled and tried again.  This time I got a young woman who also apparently didn’t speak English well.  After waiting, again, I called her too.  Asking where she was, I was given two wildly different answers, in quick succession.  Nonetheless, I asked her if, from her current location, she knew how to reach my address.  She admitted she had no idea.  Her lack of ability to understand me made it impossible to give directions.  Neither of these drivers called to let me know they weren’t coming, or to ask how to get to my location.  I drove myself.

By Claire Callahan Goodman

Claire Callahan Goodman is a Bay Area native from a large family, whose careers have included Classical Musician, Software Engineer and Mom. She has been a Salon addict since its inception.

MORE FROM Claire Callahan Goodman

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bay Area Editor's Picks Gps Life Stories San Francisco Taxi Service Taxi Wars Uber Workplace