Monthly Archives: March 2015

Uber Good. Driver Bad.

Too often customers write in to Uber to complain about a trip. The driver didn’t wait longer than the 5 minutes allowed or the route taken was perceived to be inefficient. Uber comes away form these situations looking great because they have been responsive and quick to offer a refund. What people may not be aware is the driver’s account is debited accordingly without him or her even being informed let alone be given an opportunity to explain their side of the story.

Uber taketh away

Uber taketh away

Drivers take that rough and tumble in their stride but the twitter exchange above , I must admit, stuck in my craw. Uber leaves the passenger with the mistaken impression that it saved the day after a driver over charged. In fact, the driver has zero control over pricing, he only drives and the fare is automatically calculated.  The route is set also in the navigation system though the driver could conceivably deviate but the route does not seem the be the issue.

So it’s highly unlikely the driver did anything wrong and since the fare is automatically calculated the charge was probably correct too. Yet Uber will have debited the driver’s account and left the customer with the impression that the driver had been dishonest. Not the best way to boost morale among the front line ranks.

New Uber code of conduct falls short for drivers

In response to persistent safety concerns expressed world wide, Uber has moved to introduce a safety code of conduct. This comes after a review by Guiliani Partners, a choice of partner that suggests an equal concern with optics as well as safety.

Much has been said about customer safety at Uber, but little attention has been paid to driver safety. Without minimizing the seriousness of the safety breaches reported, the demonization of drivers as a threat to women is unhelpful and grossly unfair. Exhibit A – this image from Pando Daily.

Pando Daily

Pando Daily

So here are some specific concerns about the new code of conduct in no particular order:

  • This seems more aimed at riders than drivers. This week’s weekly partner update to drivers, in London for example, made absolutely no mention of the new code.
  • US centric – the appointment of Guiliani and the code’s reference of ‘Federal or State law’ suggests to me that there is little consideration or understanding of local context beyond US shores.
  • No safety veto for drivers – disappointingly the code of conduct fails to recognise the driver is ultimately responsible for the safety of passengers and vehicle and therefore must have final say on safety. Without this explicit exemption, drivers motivated by the ratings system can be feel pressured to accept an unsafe ride. See this for example.
  • Lack of transparent engagement – Uber is a social community of riders and drivers yet their is no evidence offered that either rider or drivers were openly consulted on the development of this code. As such, it makes the code more difficult to implement and risks it being seen as a piece of corporate Uber window dressing. Transparent engagement is a critical first step in just culture within a credible safety management system. The vast majority of drivers want to operate safely so why not engage them rather than perceive them to be the risk to be protected against?
  • The proposed global community safety management code of conduct offers no quality standards definition nor any means of independent third party audit, verification or assurance. The blog post accompanying the code mentions the constitution of a Safety Advisory Board but matter of how the board will operated and governed has been ducked.
  • The code is inconsistent if not in contradiction with Driver and Rider Terms of Service. Despite the announcement of the launch of Quality Assurance Program, Uber accepts no responsibility for Quality in Riders’ terms:

The quality of the transportation services requested through the use of the Uber App and/or the Services is entirely the responsibility of the Transportation Provider who provides such transportation services to you. Uber under no circumstance accepts liability in connection with and/or arising from the transportation services provided by the Transportation Provider or any acts, actions behaviour, conduct and/or negligence on the part of the Transportation Provider or its employees. Any complaints about the transportation services provided by the Transportation Provider should be submitted to the Transportation Provider.

Similarly in Driver agreements:

Partner acknowledges and agrees that Uber does not provide any transportation services, and that Uber is not a transportation or passenger carrier.

By providing the Driving Service to the Customer, the Partner accepts, agrees and acknowledges that a direct legal relationship is created and assumed solely between the Partner and the Customer. Uber shall not be responsible or liable for the actions, omissions and behaviour of the Customer in or in relation to the Partner, the Driver and the Vehicle. The Drivers are solely responsible for taking reasonable and appropriate precautions in relation to any third party with which they interact in connection with the Driving Service. Where this allocation of the Parties’ mutual responsibilities may be ineffective under applicable law, the Partner undertakes to indemnify, defend and hold Uber harmless from and against any claims that may be brought against Uber in relation to the Partner’s provision of the Driving Service under such applicable law.

So this begs the question, if Uber intends that it should not in any way responsible or liable for transportation operations, is this operational code of conduct only for marketing and public perception purposes? If so then the effort is doomed to failure because process will never follow the rhetoric.

  • Incident response teams – Uber claims to have already set these up. But if they are its unclear how either rider or driver can active the team to access assistance.

In recent weeks I experienced a serious issue regarding violent and racist behaviour of passengers. The incident happened around midnight and I reported the matter to Uber via the App as well as had the police attend. However, Uber support did not respond until mid morning the next day and even then there was no practical support beyond platitudes. Uber would not pass on rider details to the police proactively, instead the police had to approach Uber. They would not tell me what if any action they had taken with the rider so I must assume they are still out there as a potential hazard for other drivers. I still had to accept the low rating of the passenger ride I had to terminate as far as I know. In addition, there is almost zero sharing of safety intelligence with drivers despite the huge potential to gather and share information with drivers.

Earlier this month Uber sent out a note warning drivers that there was an individual in London who ‘approached Uber partners and attempted to provoke them’. Drivers were advised to: ‘Remain calm and do not respond or retaliate in any way. Lock your doors, move on and call the police when you are able to. If you have a passenger in the car, reassure them and take them to their destination as usual.’ 

Yet when pressed, Uber refused to provide any further information that would assist drivers in identifying and managing this specific threat citing confidentiality.

The code of conduct is a welcome first step but if Uber wants to truly build a safety culture for riders and drivers it needs to do much more to develop a community culture of safety.

How posh am I?

Kensington to Shoreditch

I picked up a couple and then their female friend a few blocks later on their way to a society event deep in hipster Shoreditch. He drove an active conversation with me for almost the entire journey. He was curious about Uber, how it worked and my motivations for driving a minicab. He and she run an exclusive art gallery cum dealership, the friend a City trader.

The conversation gradually turned from an exchange to me becoming somehow an object for examination. I was a new economy worker, spotted in the wild, enjoying the benefits of flexible work enabled by social technology.

The conversation became more one dimensional, insular before finally inverting.

Him: Can I ask you a question?

Me: Sure. Go ahead.

Him: Are we the poshest people you have ever driven?

Me: I don’t know how to answer that. I am not from this country so I don’t fully understand the class system and what it means to be posh.

I kicked for the long grass but it was a reminder of the perceived status differential automatically bestowed, at least in the mind, in services transactions. Still, I can’t imagine my passenger asking a London black cabbie the same question.



The topographical test

Addison Lee, William Road NW1

In order to qualify for a TfL Private Hire drivers license everyone must pass the the topographical skills assessment. In the official TfL Annex A specifications are laid out in a 14 page documents and quaintly enough it all hinges upon being able to find your way around a London AZ. Remember those?

I was actually a bit nervous about it because I wasn’t sure my ego could take a fail or even a poor score. I needn’t have worried. I took my test at Addison Lee on a Friday afternoon and I’m pretty sure I was in and out in 15 minutes, certificate in hand.

There were three sets of questions to answer.  Module one involved being able to find a street in a map by its grid reference. For example, look up Chandos Street in the index and write down its page number and grid reference.

Module two was the inverse of the first. We were shown London Bridge on a map and we were then asked to write down page number and grid reference. Easy peesy: P42 C6.

Finally, for module three we were test on our understanding of the compass. The question:

Him: ‘If you start your journey in Stratford and end in Richmond what direction are you travelling?’

Me: ‘South West?’

Him: ‘Correct!’

Having answered one question from each of three modules correctly our assessor figured we were more than up to it so he helpfully distributed a copy of the correct answers for all the questions for each module.

Him: ‘Now lads please make sure you copy these over exactly as in the original or there’ll be hell to pay in the front office’.

The transposition took the bulk of the time.  After that it was time to enter our details into the system, fork over £25 and then our certificates appeared on the printer in the same room.

It was the quickest academic achievement I have ever notched up even if I did feel a little dirty what with the copying and all. Oh, and I’ve never opened an AZ since. It’s all about the Sat Nav anyway.

Taking care of care workers

Kensington to Dulwich

I enjoy most picking up someone who actually works in a job of significant social value. It makes me feel useful as if contributing to a greater good. I can’t say I feel the same for the endless stream of misplaced mathematicians working their market model magic for the good of a bank down in Canary Wharf.  Those late night trips to leafy suburbs seem dull in comparison. Don’t get me wrong, they too are mostly very nice people, it’s just I’m not sure their well paid jobs make for the advancement of a better world.

One night I had the pleasure of picking up an on call renal doctor. He’d been called in for an emergency and was now on the way home to catch a few hours of sleep. Despite the obvious stress of such jobs these people are nearly always personable, considerate and respectful. Dealing with the big stuff perhaps has helped them understand what is really important in life and what is just hubris.

I learned if you get a transplant you’ll be managed by two distinct teams. First there is surgery team that do the cutting and pasting followed by the immunology team who will work the pharma to keep your body from rejecting the new organ. But it turns out kidney troubles also spill over into a whole host of knock on serious ailments so do try to keep out of a renal unit if you can.

The good doctor told me of an 18 year old lad who got the call:

‘Sir please grab your ‘go bag’ and make your way down to the hospital. We have a match coming in and the surgical teams are getting ready. When can you get here?’

All transplant patients on the list are advised to have a packed bag ready at the door for these eventualities, just as pregnant women in the final stages are encouraged to. But the young lad froze up in fear.

Listen, I’ve been thinking about it and I don’t think I want to do it. I mean, I’d rather have the surgery right now. I’ve got a lot on this summer what with uni and all. Can we pick this up at another stage, maybe next year?

The transplant team were flabbergasted.

Well Sir, we’d strongly urge you to think carefully about this. The sooner you have the transplant the better your prognosis. Besides, we can’t be sure if and when another match will become available. Obviously time if of the essence here so we’ll give you an hour to think again about this but then we have to move down the list.

An hour later the young fella arrived on ward  with his mother. He looked sullen and withdrawn, she looked determined.

Of course he wants the surgery. What do we need to sign and where does he need to go?

The hospital team were in a bind.

Mam, he needs to want to have this and legally consent to the surgery. It must be his decision and neither you or we can impose this.

Mother knew she was home and dry.

But you are having the surgery aren’t you Joe?

Joe was quietly resigned.


My first ride

Twickenham to Upper Richmond Road

I took this first fare with a combined feeling of dread and curiosity. Dread because I really didn’t want to go back to a type of service work I hadn’t been involved in since university days. Curiosity because intellectually I wanted to fully understand the Uber experience.

It couldn’t have been a better job. I picked up a young man who was doing a temporary job at a nursery selling trees. He turned out to be an entrepreneur and we quickly got into a discussion about lean start up principles. I’m in awe of the millennium generation in a way as they have few delusions about the permanency of a corporate career and a secure pension. This man surveyed the landscape and figured that ‘corporate wages will continue to be depressed, the work boring, little opportunity for progression in a flat hierarchy and no longer term security’.

Instead he and a mate launched their own start up a year ago. Nothing earth shattering but it washed its own face and sustained two friends. He said: ‘I wanted to prove to myself that I could start and run my own business and I did it. Now it’s time to move on.’ He was planning his first tech start up, a serial entrepreneur.

It wasn’t without sacrifice though. First status: we both agreed it was important to forget about that. Do what you need to do in the short run to keep your long term independence. For him it was selling trees at a nursery for a few months. For me it is Ubering. Next, wind in your social life. He spoke about the difficulty of going to the pub with your mates during the week: ‘if I’m working for someone else and I have a few too many on a Tuesday night it’s OK I can nurse a sore head for a day or two at work but when I’m trying to do a start up I need all my energy not least because I have to remain relentlessly positive about success no matter the obstacle. That’s hard with a hangover.’

I was thankful to have this man as my first rider. It made me feel good about what I was doing and why. However, a rude awakening. When I picked him up I forgot to swipe the app to start the journey. No mind I’d be able to tell Uber Partner Support exactly where I started and finished. Besides, Uber had their own electronic record of the journey anyway. Except, no. Hard luck, the full fare wouldn’t accrue and Uber were not going to manually adjust it. They were at least encouraging: ‘it happens everyone at least once. don’t worry.’

‘Start as you mean to go on’, a wise man once said.

Why blog Uber London?

Until recently I was on the other side of the desk. I was developing markets for software that would truly disrupt an aspect of the economy and make it sustainable. I worked for a large software vendor and I made a lot of money. But before I had a chance to disrupt I was disrupted. Before I could convince the market of wide scale adoption I found myself out of a job.

Determined not to rush back into the job market I preferred to cool my heels, play for time and decide what I really wanted to do next. Then I thought about Uber. I could make some money with minimal commitment and leave myself open for all possibilities.

Thus began my journey into London Ubering.