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‘Cash Car Trivia,’ the New ‘HQ’-for-Uber Upstart, Should Be Simple Fun

But as with most things related to the ride-hailing behemoth, the game doesn’t stand up to ethical scrutiny

Ringer illustration

I live in Washington, D.C., which is to say I take a lot of Ubers. I do not have a car, and public transit is rarely of much help, given the state of D.C. transit is best classified as “LOL.” The subway system here, Metro, was such a patchwork of signal failures, decaying trackwork, duct tape, and outright mendacity that the feds forcibly took the agency over three years ago. The Department of Transportation in turn instituted a restorative program of fixes whose near-term linchpin is “the train you would like to ride is not coming, ever.” If you want to go somewhere quickly in our nation’s capital, you are left, for the most part, to ride-hailing services. I use Lyft occasionally, but I am a dispeptic from San Francisco and have not yet forgiven the company for its early Bay Area rituals of ride-initiating fist bumps and semi-mandated chitchat. So it’s Uber for me.

And so when I first heard about an app that promised to turn every ride into a shot at minor riches, I was intrigued. Do I like trivia? Do I ever. Do I frequent Uber? Boy howdy. Would I like the opportunity to be rewarded for my own refusal to figure out the bus schedule? Well. Maybe?

Cash Car Trivia’s premise is simple: It is HQ for Uber. Install the Cash Car Trivia app, link it to your extant Uber app (sorry, Lyft/Grab/Ola/Didi/etc.-inclined friends; this is an Uber-only affair at present, despite having no formal affiliation with the company), and away you go. The next time you summon an Uber, your driver pressing the start trip button on their phone will automatically push an alert to yours: “Time to play Cash Car Trivia! Today’s prize is $100!” Click that and you will be sent to the first of 10 trivia questions; get them all right and you’ll receive a slice of that $100. Ignore the prompt, and your phone will send a second and final alert the moment your Uber ride ends: “You missed your chance to win $100. Play on your next ride to have a chance.”

It is a strange thing. You’re buying a service and you’re competing to be paid yourself. And how does your driver, the person who’s actually doing the thing that enables the competition and who receives no notification that a game is commencing behind them, fit in? If Uber’s selling point has long been that it will deliver you from Point A to Point B with nary a credit card swipe nor, should you wish to avoid it, an exchange about the weather, what does it mean if both people in the car are getting paid, without the driver even knowing? “Love this app!!” reads one of two reviews in Apple’s App Store. “I use it every time I Uber. And an added bonus for those introvert moments: pop your headphones in and you don’t have to converse with your driver. Win win!” No conversing, no tipping, possibly no dip in your bank account — who could complain?

Cash Car Trivia is the first app released by the five-month-old, Brooklyn-based studio Kaffee Labs. The HQ similarities are hard to ignore: Cash Car is, like the occasionally Robert De Niro–featuring mobile quiz megahit, a jaunty, brightly colored, multiple-choice affair that runs through a variety of general-interest categories: things like “If you’re talking about electricity, what does ‘DC’ stand for?” and “What ‘alter ego’ of Nicki Minaj helps name her second studio album?” Like HQ, it is free to play, with the prize dough coming from some amorphous pool of seed money and the monetization still, as in the early days of HQ, seemingly yet to come. There is no Scott, given the game is not live, which means you’ll find yourself trying to read the occasionally wordy prompts as quickly as possible as you rocket over the 2017–2018 perma-winter’s leftover potholes. As on HQ, the questions are sometimes maddeningly specific. Don’t know if the average number of miles between Pluto and the Sun is 14,000,000,000 or 3,666,000,000? Too bad. Still, I found myself dreaming of an Uber Pool trivia nirvana: Me and a handful of my brilliant new best friends huddled together over my glowing phone, screaming STATUE OF LIBERTY!!! in unison and taking our hard-fought $100 out to celebrate, our original destinations scrapped.

Over a couple of weeks of fiddling with the app, I did not see the daily prize deviate from $100 ; though given that the game doesn’t seem to have found much of an audience just yet, your shot at a decent piece of that seems pretty good. (Compare this with a Thursday round of HQ with north of 700,000 players who split a $5,000 pot among 1,009 winners — good for just $4.95 a head.) I also, however, haven’t had the opportunity to call Cash Car on its promised benevolence: I have yet to make it past Question 8. You can play up to two different games per Uber ride — the first automatically, the second if you allow the app to advertise itself to someone in your address book. (A plurality of the restaurants I used to order from in college have now received a text inviting them to play trivia with me. My apologies to Medici on 57th; I hope your pizza has improved.) There is no daily limit to how many games you can play;  take five Ubers, and you’ll have five different chances (or 10, if you’d like to make your friends and/or pizzerias hate you). Each game is different: I have yet to see a single question repeat in any round. My dreams of a trivia nirvana, sadly, were for naught. The game moves too quickly to allow for much outside input (or, ahem, Googling), and my fellow Poolers had a tendency to keep their headphones in, as if they knew an eager maybe-pyramid scheme lurked in their midst.

But it all gets to feeling just a little bit icky. To partake in Uber or any other ride-hailing service, much less to do so frequently, is to breeze past the many problems those companies invite: drivers left stranded on the shoals of contractor-dom, sleeping in their cars and taking home often staggeringly low wages, plus the deep cultural problems at the ride-hailing companies themselves. Here in D.C., ride-hailing services are putting many more cars on the road than there had previously been, bringing concerns both environmental and civic. This month, the city’s mayor, Muriel E. Bowser, signed a bill that will nearly quintuple the tax imposed on ride-hailing customers, with the result going toward that embattled public transit system, which is shedding riders by the tens of thousands. This is not exclusively a product of ride-hailing apps swiping passengers like yours truly — but the two are without a doubt related, and it is hard not to feel that all this easy skipping between friends’ apartments and beer gardens is having some serious, and perhaps irreversible, effect on the city itself.

And then, of course, there is the weirdness of enthusiastically attempting to win cash through idle clicking as your driver actually works in the seat beside you — and almost certainly, assuming you’re not going to Buffalo, for far less money. I talked with several of my drivers about this, including Oliver, who was approaching the Uber-mandated end of a 12-hour shift at the wheel. His take on Cash Car was one mostly of bemusement — they make money how? (They don’t, apparently. Yet? I guess.) If I had won $100 in his backseat, shouldn’t he be in line for some portion of that? I asked him. The stores that sell winning lottery tickets are given their own chunk of change, though it varies by state: In 2016, a winning Powerball stub meant $1,000,000 for a shopkeeper in California and just $25,000 for one in Tennessee. One day, might an Uber pull up to your curb, a glossy teal sign taped to the window beside the black-and-white U: “$100 WINNER MADE HERE! ARE YOU NEXT?

Oliver didn’t have an answer: “You’re the one answering the questions,” he said with a shrug as he dropped me off at dinner. Which is true — and if it were HQ a passenger were playing, it might not bear considering. But in a time when a simple tap, multiplied outward, brings not just speedy lifts to ramen shops but also the incremental decline of a subway system and traffic and pollution and workers who pull 12-hour days and still aren’t found worthy of insurance or vacation or protection should something go awry in their car — at what point does a rider have a responsibility to ease off the gas? Of course, $100 neither solves nor tangibly worsens anything about the status quo, just as no one ride does, and if the goal is to take your mind off of what’s happening around you, then Cash Car Trivia undoubtedly succeeds. But maybe, just maybe, there are some things worth paying attention to.