There’s a window of time every evening — let’s call it #UberAfterDark — when shuttling people around via a ridesharing service comes with a certain amount of risk for drivers. Drunk passengers are unpredictable, liable to puke on a car’s freshly vacuumed seats or issue a low driver rating for no discernible reason. And those ratings can have big consequences — a driver with a score lower than 4.6 out of five stars can be booted from the platform. If Ahmad Fernandez were running Uber, the 34-year-old Los Angeles driver would bar passengers from issuing ratings after 11 p.m. “They start acting all crazy, sticking their heads out the window,” he says, noting that West Hollywood passengers are particularly rowdy. “I don’t think they’re in their right minds to give a fair rating to the driver.”
For years, Uber and its ridesharing ilk like Lyft have negotiated a delicate balance between the needs of passengers and drivers. By and large, the companies have determined that the customer is almost always right. But recent big changes at Uber, such as a pledge to launch more driver-first features and the ouster of the company’s hawkish CEO, have some drivers hopeful that the ridesharing giant’s favoritism will finally swing in their direction.
Last week brought big changes to both Uber the product and Uber the company. On Tuesday, the company announced it was launching a 180-day campaign to improve the driving experience every month, starting with adding a long-requested tipping feature within the app. A day later, Uber cofounder Travis Kalanick offered his resignation as CEO, capping a tumultuous seven months that have included sexual harassment allegations against at least one company executive, Kalanick’s appointment to and defection from a White House advisory council, and an ongoing public airing of Uber’s dirty laundry.
It’s hard to imagine the arrival of a driver-centric Uber and the departure of its CEO are not linked (Kalanick had already taken a leave of absence on June 13, and Uber is currently being run by a group of 14 executives). Uber has been decidedly anti-tipping for years, reminding customers they don’t have to pay drivers extra after settling a lawsuit over its tipping policy in 2016. Kalanick has been flippant at best about the importance of drivers to his company, noting that “the other dude in the car” would be an obsolete expense once autonomous vehicles can whisk passengers around. At his worst, he got caught on camera cursing during an argumentative conversation with a driver for not working hard enough earlier this year during an argument over falling fares. “For good or for bad, I think that drivers sort of used Travis as a scapegoat for a lot of problems and challenges they faced,” says Harry Campbell, an Uber driver and founder of The Rideshare Guy blog. “I can say that drivers were very happy or very excited because Travis was gone. It sort of signals that Uber could start caring more about the driver experience.”
While anyone following Uber’s corporate intrigue closely — including those who follow ridesharing blogs and forums — would say the company is awash in controversy, those damning headlines haven’t soured all drivers on the company. Juanita Carlos, a 59-year-old driver from Southern California, bought a 2016 Toyota Corolla through Uber’s leasing program and drives it six days a week to pay for her car note, gas, and insurance. “I’m pretty satisfied with the way things are going, actually,” she says. “If I want to drive more, I can make more money, but I’m already driving a lot.”
Fernandez, the late-night L.A. driver, also sees Uber as a company on the rise, not in crisis. But he still has a long list of suggestions to improve the driving experience. The 4.6-star cutoff is too harsh on drivers — he thinks it should be 4.3 or 4.4. Drivers, who have to accept rides blind, shouldn’t be asked to pick up passengers more than two or three miles away. Passengers should be able to pick the same driver again for another ride if they’re both in the same area. He’d also like more opportunities to set various destination filters each day, which serve drivers passengers that are headed in their intended direction (right now drivers can set only two filters per day). Some of these changes could be announced in the coming months. “They’re starting to realize it’s time we start thinking about our drivers and start giving back to our drivers,” Fernandez says. “It’s a good thing. It’s actually making me think twice about sticking around and seeing where things go.”
Fernandez’s ideas are specific and quantitative — but of the five drivers I spoke with for this story, the one hang-up they all came back to was more abstract than additional filters or a change in ratings parameters. In short, they think Uber simply isn’t on their side. Drivers feel that in a dispute over fare price or quality of service, Uber allies with the passenger far too often. In a service mediated by wonky GPS technology and cellphone calls taken on chaotic city streets, miscommunication can be common, but the company usually says it’s the driver’s fault if something goes awry. “Uber was founded by guys who wanted to improve the passenger experience,” Campbell says. “It wasn’t founded by guys who saw what it was like to be a taxi driver and saw how terrible it was and wanted to make that better. … It’s a very passenger-centric company.”
There are some signs that Uber’s calculus on this front may be changing. In March, the company said it would begin assessing a driver’s performance record when determining who to side with in a dispute with a passenger. In some markets Uber is also finally offering phone support for drivers rather than forcing them to toss their complaints into the email void (though the program is currently only a pilot). And the same day the tipping feature was announced, Uber also announced other driver-centric features such as a shorter free cancellation window for passengers, higher fares for teenagers, and including driver wait times in a passenger’s fare. “What they released on that first day of this 180-day campaign was probably more than what they’ve done for the drivers in the past two years,” Campbell says.
Uber’s change of heart isn’t some kind of sudden moral revelation. The ridesharing giant is trying to juggle three constituencies — employees, drivers, and customers — who have all found reason to reject the company’s ruthless, disrupt-or-be-disrupted culture. Just like passengers can dump Uber in favor of Lyft, so can drivers. Many end up driving for both, casting the companies’ differing approaches to driver retention into stark relief. And when drivers quit, ridesharing companies have to spend lots of money to lure in new ones, offering starting bonuses that sometimes exceed $1,000. “Really at this point, it’s almost getting to the point where they could add anything and I still wouldn’t care,” says Jason Saunders, a 43-year-old from Laguna Hills, California, who began driving with Uber a year ago but has since gravitated toward Lyft. “It’s kind of too little, too late. Lyft has had all this stuff.”
For a long time, it felt like Uber was simply running points up on the board against its far-back competitors in the ridesharing space. But today Lyft has growing market share and higher driver satisfaction, forcing Uber to scramble to make sure it doesn’t squander its once-insurmountable lead. And finally, for the long-suffering drivers who keep Uber’s $70 billion machine humming, that’s good news.