Please explain Uber to me like I'm a farmer
September 19, 2015 11:13 AM   Subscribe

What is Uber? Something involving taxicabs and smart phones (and I rarely use either). It seems the cognoscenti are all over Uber as it makes arranging short-term surface travel easier (tough luck, stinky old medallion cabbie) but there's other aspects I'm missing.

For example, this quote from Why Web Pages Suck:
To put it another way, publishers today have about as much bargaining power as do Uber drivers, and we’ve seen how that has gone.
Could somebody explain to this Old exactly have "we" have seen "go" about Uber drivers? Anything else about this phenomenon you might feel relevant would also be appreciated -- this phenomenon being (I think) the Sharing or On-Demand Economy.
posted by Rash to Travel & Transportation (20 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Well, when you sign up with your credit card, you get an app that literally shows you a local map with where cars are, you can get an estimate on the price too, and when you decide to "hire" one, it tells you their name (which may be false security- but hey, there is a paper trail) and pretty accurately how long of a wait it will be. (Or local service is pretty sketchy about all that- especially in bad weather) So, it is pretty good (and tempting) when you're out late and maybe a little too drunk to deal with guesstimating the cash needed and/or trusting a random car service's driver. It is also very handy in that you can make multiple stops - errands or picking up friends and not be charged again for each stop. You can also easily send friends home in one, or send info on your ETA to friends while on your way there.
Afterwards, it immediately send you an email letting you know what you're being billed and also the exact route you took. Which is handy in case you have forgotten! And the prices are generally very good except during "fare surges" when there is high demand, the rate goes up.
posted by TenaciousB at 11:27 AM on September 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

I think that The Awl has done a lot of good reporting on the latter part of your question, regarding the 'Sharing economy'. Certainly with a particular point of view, but it certainly explains what is meant by "as much bargaining power as do Uber drivers".

I'd read through the 'Uber' tag here - It's chronological, so you can start somewhere early and move forward to see "how that has gone."
posted by sagc at 11:30 AM on September 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Uber drivers are contractors and the prices are set by Uber, so it's a take-it-or-leave it proposition. Uber mucks around with the prices day to day, city to city and minute by minute, so drivers can find themselves suddenly earning a lot less than they expected, and they can't do much about it.
posted by BungaDunga at 11:34 AM on September 19, 2015

Are you asking what Uber is or are you asking why people (on Metafilter in particular) seem to dislike it so much?

I'll take your question at face value. Uber is a service that allows you to use your phone to call a driver to your location. This is useful because 1) there are tons of Uber drivers around so they'll probably arrive quickly 2) you don't need to rely on one specific cab company and 3) the phone has your location so you don't need to specify it to the driver. Also, in large cities like New York, it is often extremely difficult to hail a taxi during peak hours, or if you live in an area that isn't serviced by taxis. Moreover, although it is illegal for them to do so, many New York taxi drivers will refuse to take passengers to certain areas.

After the driver takes you to your destination, your phone handles the payment, so you don't need to mess around with change, tips, etc. The other feature of Uber is that unlike regular taxis, the pricing is not fixed. It is based on supply and demand. In other words, if everybody needs to use Uber at the same time, the pricing becomes more expensive to reflect the surge in demand. This encourages more drivers to work (increasing the supply) and reduces the demand from people who are unable to pay the higher prices.

As for why some people dislike Uber, I'll leave that to other commenters. In general, the criticisms I have seen on Metafilter seem to revolve around
1) the status of the drivers, who are not considered employees, but contractors
2) regulation of the service
3) insurance concerns
4) effect on existing taxi drivers (supply of taxis is limited by the government in most places)
5) general dislike or mistrust of pricing determined by market forces

Could somebody explain to this Old exactly have "we" have seen "go" about Uber drivers?
I didn't understand this question.
posted by pravit at 11:34 AM on September 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

How Uber works: You open the app and hit a button. It reports your GPS location to Uber's systems. Drivers in your vicinity are alerted to your location. One of them will decide to pick you up; when they do, you can track their location on a map until they arrive. At the end of the ride, your fare is calculated based on how far you went and how long it took. Uber bills the fare to a credit card or PayPal account that you set up when you signed up for the service. No cash or other form of payment exchanges hands between you and the driver.

Uber drivers are independent contractors using their own cars; they are not employees of Uber. They set their own hours; whenever they're ready to work, they use their smartphones to sign in and then Uber starts offering them fares. When they're ready to be done working for the day, they sign out of the app. They are paid a percentage of their fares.

Why someone might not like Uber: Uber has faced criticism on a number of fronts; because their drivers aren't employees, they don't get benefits such as health insurance or a retirement plan. Uber is fairly ruthless about dropping drivers with less-than-perfect ratings from their system; after your ride, you are asked by the app to rate it on a scale of 1 to 5 stars, and if a driver gets just a few less-than-5-star ratings they'll stop being offered fares. They have had a somewhat cavalier attitude in the past with regard to the privacy of their customers; at one particular company party, they had a live map projected on the wall with the locations of all the Uber customers in the city, and early on they wrote a number of unsavory blog posts like trying to determine how many "rides of shame" were taken on a particular Saturday morning. They have been accused of booking fake rides on competitors' services in order to interfere with their business. Uber also has zero respect for any sort of existing taxi or transportation licensing system in the cities in which they operate; they tend to just ignore these types of laws if they don't like them. To top it all off, there have been a couple of incidents where Uber drivers have assaulted their passengers.

I do not think Uber is a great company, and I feel a little bit guilty every time I use them. However, their service is vastly better than any of the alternatives. Unlike cabs, Uber cars are always clean, and I've never gotten in one to find the driver smoking or listening to some awful racist screed on the radio. I've tried other ridesharing apps like Lyft, but the apps are never as good and the cars are never as clean or as nice; it seems like everyone else's quality of service is markedly inferior to Uber's.
posted by jordemort at 11:38 AM on September 19, 2015 [5 favorites]

It's also important to know that there are different "types" of ubers. I've seen at least sl half a dozen offered in LA, but the primary ones are "uber black" (the original offering) and Uber-x. Uber black is typically a traditional car-service type vehicle (Towncar, escapade, suburban, etc.) with a driver who is a professional Towncar driver. Uber-x is non-professional drivers in their personal cars that could be anything from a Hyundai to a BMW. I personally use Uber Black almost exclusively. It's more expensive but in my experience a far better (and more consistent) experience.
posted by primethyme at 11:40 AM on September 19, 2015

My friend that works for Uber explains it like this. Uber is marketplace like eBay is a marketplace. You want an old comic book. Bob is selling that old comic book. EBay is the place you and Bob go to find each other. With Uber, you want a ride from the theatre to your home. Sam wants to make money driving you somewhere. Uber is the place where you and Sam find each other. And the Uber app uses the location GPS stuff in your smartphones so that you and Sam can judge if he is close enough to you to make it worthwhile for the transaction to happen.

So when you open the Uber app on your phone you tell the app "hey, I'm here and I want a ride". The drivers see that someone at 1st and Main wants a ride. And then they can choose to pick you up.

All the financial transactions take place via the app. You entered your credit card info. Drivers get paid the same way.
posted by k8t at 11:41 AM on September 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Uber is not really a marketplace: Uber sets the prices, not the drivers. It's not like eBay at all.
posted by BungaDunga at 11:44 AM on September 19, 2015 [19 favorites]

I never feel good about Uber, because I agree with many that its ushering in an era of rights-less work policies, however, there are great arguments about its benefits too.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 11:48 AM on September 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

For the quotation you're asking about:
To put it another way, publishers today have about as much bargaining power as do Uber drivers, and we’ve seen how that has gone.
Uber has been continually decreasing drivers' pay. Because the drivers are considered independent contractors rather than employees (though there are currently lawsuits going trying to change that), they don't really have any sort of collective bargaining power to fight back against that, so the pay keeps going down. So that writer is saying that publishers, due to their lack of bargaining power, are likely to see profits/wages/salaries (depending on context) driven into the ground.
posted by jaguar at 11:52 AM on September 19, 2015 [4 favorites]

Because the drivers are considered independent contractors rather than employees [...] they don't really have any sort of collective bargaining power to fight back against that, so the pay keeps going down.

Uber doesn't have to start delivering back on the kajillions of VC money it has received, but it does need to squeeze out the competition wherever it may be. Also, plenty of drivers have the sunk cost of a newish car that Uber strongly advised them to buy in order to get higher ratings and more fares.

Most of all, the CEO of Uber has made it clear that he considers human drivers as necessary stepping-stones on the way towards self-driving cars, at which point... well, I suppose former Uber drivers can apply for jobs scrubbing vomit off the back seats of autonomous cars.
posted by holgate at 12:01 PM on September 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

In some areas (Chicago, for one) you can also use Uber to call a regular medallion cab, with most of the same features (GPS tracking, ratings, effortless payment).
posted by theodolite at 12:15 PM on September 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Prepaid, fixed-price taxis with a smartphone app. That's it.
posted by blue_beetle at 12:40 PM on September 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Why people like Uber: You know how when you want a cab from some random, non-downtown location, you have to call, wait on hold, and generally start the process far in advance? You know how a lot of cabbies hate to take credit cards? Or they have to call in your number to central dispatch, taking like 10 minutes? With Uber, you open your phone, see the ETA of the nearest driver and a cost estimate, and they're there in like 4 minutes. The account bills to your credit card on file, so billing is instantaneous. The whole thing is much faster and simpler, and with a lot fewer annoying interactions.

Why people don't like Uber: It's generally a pretty bad deal to the drivers. There was also some news about safety risks to drivers or riders. They claim to not be subject to a lot of regulations (e.g., to serve people with disabilities). Some drivers discriminate. They might take revenues away from services that definitely are required to serve everyone (regardless of race, ability, etc.), like public transit.
posted by salvia at 12:47 PM on September 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

If I'm an Uber passenger and the driver runs a red light and puts me in the hospital, who do I sue? Can I sue Uber Central if I incur damage because one of their drivers is negligent or incompetent?

What kind of liability insurance are drivers required to have? Any beyond the local legal mandate for non-commercial use of a car?
posted by justcorbly at 1:45 PM on September 19, 2015

Since you live in the Bay Area and are a computer programmer, it may help to find a friend or coworker who has a smart phone and have that person show you how it works. I believe has several articles about legal disputes between Uber and their drivers and the local cities. has a lot of articles on the topic, but they are all behind a paywall.
posted by deanc at 1:58 PM on September 19, 2015

Response by poster: are you asking why people (on Metafilter in particular) seem to dislike it so much?

I haven't noticed much Uber-hating here -- it seems to have quickly become the default way people who write on the Internet get around, including MeFites. (And this one only has reason to hate their competitor, Lyft, because of the stupid magenta mustachios.)

Uber has been continually decreasing drivers' pay.

News to me -- makes my quote a lot more understandable. Thanks for all your explanations!
posted by Rash at 3:58 PM on September 19, 2015

The Lyft pink mustache is a nod to their focus on safe rides, especially for women.
posted by kathryn at 4:50 PM on September 19, 2015

This article in the Philly Citypaper --- "I was an undercover Uber driver" is a great behind the scenes look at how Uber works and its pros and cons. Seriously, it's a great piece of journalism.

One thing other posters haven't mentioned --- Uber's business model, e.g. startup makes an app that enables independent contractors to hook up with customers to provide a service --- is one that has been widely copied in many other industries besides taxicabs (house cleaning, errands, laundry, simple repairs). To the point where describing a startup as "the Uber of [blank]" is a Silicon Vally/tech press cliche. The fact that Uber et al do not have the liabilities and expenses of traditional companies --- accident insurance, worker's comp, health insurance, overtime, equipment maintenance and repair --- is what has made the model particularly appealing to investors. There is reason to suppose that if Uber succeeds it could hasten a shift in the economy in which far more people are working as independant contractors. People who value workers' rights tend to worry about this. (Whether Uber drivers meet the federal definition of independent contractors is a whole other ball of wax.)
posted by Diablevert at 6:39 PM on September 19, 2015 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks again for all the enlightenment. Sorry if "like a farmer" offended anyone, my thinking was taxi services were a city thing and the opposite was out in the country, ie farms. But of course, rural people need rides too.
posted by Rash at 8:35 PM on December 28, 2015

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