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Speaker: Confessions of an Uber Driver II: How we doing?

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  • James Littlewood*,

    animated ... boring, racist, taxi drivers

    West Auckland does a really special line in precisely this.

    Has taxi driving ever been well paid since deregulation in the late 1980s?

    Auckland • Since Mar 2008 • 410 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson,

    I'm not personally across that. It would be interesting to hear from anyone who actually is a taxi driver. My information came from the bank when I went to get another mortgage for my new house. They told me that it was considered by the bank to be a high-income profession. Since they pretty much demand to see the details of your income when giving a mortgage, I can only surmise they base that heuristic on actual facts. I think it is likely, though, that it's "high income" because they work extremely long hours. In other words, the pay is not great, but you can do 70 hours a week, which takes an average hourly rate into an above average yearly income.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 10631 posts Report Reply

  • Joe Wylie, in reply to BenWilson,

    It's an old, established and quite boring industry,

    Perhaps it was more fun in the olden days. A friend who drove in Auckland back then had a story about picking up a bunch of queens one Friday night. As they were waiting at the lights at the intersection of Customs and Queen one of his passengers leaned out the window and shouted to a young bobby on the beat who'd stationed himself outside the Dilworth Building "Get off my corner you slut!"

    flat earth • Since Jan 2007 • 4591 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson,

    But there's no way to skin $10/hour into a high income. The median income is a bit over $20/hour for wage and salary earners, so even if you do 70 hours/week, you're going to be on a below average income. For busting your arse doing several hundred trips a week, and basically having a life that is either working or sleeping, except for your mandatory day off per week.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 10631 posts Report Reply

  • Alfie,

    There's something you may not have factored into your calculations Ben.

    My Dad owned a Dunedin Taxis license back in the 1950s. He made a reasonable living but it was never likely to make him rich. He used to put aside a third of his income into a car fund which covered repairs and, more importantly, the cost of upgrading your vehicle every three years or so. When you're doing a high mileage your vehicle will get tired, and that's a very real cost many Uber drivers may not have considered.

    I have a few friends who drive taxis in Queenstown and none of them take home more than the average wage, some of them considerably less. I'm not sure that taxi drivers ever made a lot of money, but Uber's plan to fill the streets with cheap, unlicensed drivers can only spread the potential income and guarantee that nobody makes a living.

    Dunedin • Since May 2014 • 1381 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Alfie,

    Yes, my maintenance and depreciation calculations are only based on a few months of data. I’m getting plenty more in the pipeline, though, so the true picture will emerge over the next few weeks. It’s been a job to convince hundreds of drivers that this data is a very valuable contribution to their cause.

    By hundreds, I mean there are about 400 odd drivers on the various FB pages, most of them in Auckland. A whole lot of them want to go on strike and don't see the worth of the long game. I can't convince them otherwise, indeed the People's Liberation Front of Judea dynamic has been hard at work for weeks. I've had to leave those who think striking would work as independent contractors to their own devices. Unfortunately, anyone committed to that path is usually there on grounds of a total misunderstanding of how things work in NZ and around the world, when it comes to the rights of independent contractors, and people with such severe misunderstandings are hard to get into a rational camp of people committed to the more progressive pathway of organizing together as a strong team. I doubt their ability to even organize anything that would come up on the radar as a strike.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 10631 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Joe Wylie,

    Perhaps it was more fun in the olden days.

    Oh, I enjoy the work. Particularly on Friday night, there’s like 15 different parties in the car that evening. Been listening to a much wider range of music recently. It’s been a surprising discovery for me that the biggest fans of gangsta rap would seem to be teenaged white girls.

    Young men, surprisingly, seem to be much bigger fans of R&B. I always thought it was the other way around.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 10631 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Alfie,

    Uber’s plan to fill the streets with cheap, unlicensed drivers can only spread the potential income and guarantee that nobody makes a living.

    Especially since those drivers will also have to factor in the extremely punitive fines and other punishments that they can receive. They could Uber for a year and lose the entire year’s income, their car, their license and their job in one single moment at a check point.

    Or they could have a crash into an expensive car, and find that non-commercial insurance will not pay out and they will be pursued into bankruptcy by the other party.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 10631 posts Report Reply

  • Katita,

    So if Uber isn't making you rich, then

    magically, by the power of technology

    who is making money off of the drivers?

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 65 posts Report Reply

  • Ian Dalziel,

    living in fare...
    Taxi driving was once pretty rank...
    ...and file sharing now makes it easier
    through rein-in hail
    and flag-fall fail
    Uber allies
    uber alles!!

    Christchurch • Since Dec 2006 • 7886 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Katita,

    Well I find it hard to believe that I've cost Uber anywhere near the thousands of dollars that I've already generated for them in a few months. But I don't know what their business model is - it would seem to be aggressive growth at all costs, most particularly at human cost, which they 100% externalize. So maybe it's true they're not making money. But there's a reason that their valuation is skyrocketing, and it's not because they're just a Ponzi scheme. It's because they're literally trying to tap into an enormous global industry and seize primary control over it. There are billions of dollars in fares for them to take. It's not funny imaginary tech stock money these guys are chasing.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 10631 posts Report Reply

  • Moz, in reply to BenWilson,

    I doubt their ability to even organize anything that would come up on the radar as a strike.

    To be effective it would have to be not just illegal, but dangerous - they would have to hack or otherwise attack the Uber app in some way, which would annoy Apple, Google and Uber (as well as the police). That's the sort of combination that leads to long sentences, because the tech companies are very capable of assembling a court case and the police in NZ are not good at distinguishing hacker fact from hacker fiction.

    Simply blocking the streets would only get them so far, especially in NZ where the ... welcoming arms... of the state are always open, especially to poor, non-white people who are causing trouble.

    Sydney, West Island • Since Nov 2006 • 1193 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Moz,

    Yes, the kind of headline grabbing direct actions that could be taken are all the kind of things that are way premature. You've got to be organized into some recognizable body to even make demands, otherwise you're just an anarchic rabble who can be shut down in short order. You've got to have huge numbers for a a strike to do anything, and things like pickets and blockades are way too confrontational to the general public.

    Before all of that, you at least try to exhaust the less militant options, like writing to the company, alerting the media, forming an association, getting legal advocates to review your options, contacting the regulators about your concerns, getting politicians on your side. We've been doing all of that instead. I can't speak for the grumbling masses of drivers in general, only those who have chosen to at least make an attempt at getting organized.

    It's progressing just fine, albeit not in a way that will hit headlines, certainly not if Uber gets the message and begins a backdown. I've had the first indications of that possibility already reported in. I like to think they're run by sane people, and they see disaster looming down the path they trod. It's not too late to get their foot out of that quicksand. Otherwise, we will quite literally suck them down to their demise.

    This is a New Zealand story and they're not getting away with this shit. Not in my country. I have some faith in the resilience of our institutions to deal with foreign attempts to act like some kind of mafia, that can dictate slavery terms and induce people into widespread lawbreaking for their profit.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 10631 posts Report Reply

  • Moz, in reply to BenWilson,

    This is a New Zealand story and they're not getting away with this shit.

    That I like. And your approach sounds more reasonable :)

    I do hope it doesn't take someone actually getting slapped by the plod for Uber to see reason. I don't think there's much to gain from someone losing their car/everything/life.

    I put it to my housemate when he was Ubering that for most Uber drivers they're basically selling their car one ride at a time. He seemed to think that getting $20/hour from Uber was an excellent deal. Despite his accounting qualification he didn't seem able to grasp the not-very-hidden costs that you describe so well.

    Sydney, West Island • Since Nov 2006 • 1193 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Moz,

    I do hope it doesn’t take someone actually getting slapped by the plod for Uber to see reason.

    Unfortunately, it's going to take more than that, because that has already happened, in a number of blitzes done last week, by the accounts given by the NZTA. Uber may or may not foot the bill - they always intimate that they will, but of course are far too canny to sign any kind of contract to that effect. Just as they are too canny to let us actually see the contingent liability insurance they have to cover that guy the day their insurance company won't pay because the policy was not a commercial one. I expect that contingent liability policy either does not actually exist, or is under lock and key somewhere.

    He seemed to think that getting $20/hour from Uber was an excellent deal.

    Well if it was after costs, it would be a living wage. But before costs that would be appallingly low, could easily come to something like $8 per hour in real terms.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 10631 posts Report Reply

  • Moz, in reply to BenWilson,

    He seemed to think that getting $20/hour from Uber was an excellent deal.

    Well if it was after costs, it would be a living wage. But before costs that would be appallingly low, could easily come to something like $8 per hour in real terms.

    It was very much before costs. He was getting screwed, and after a while couldn't afford to pay rent to us so had to move back to his parents house. He was already eating there more often than not, because he quit his other job when Uber was paying well, but couldn't go back when they stopped. Ooops.

    I am pretty confident that it would require the elected government to intervene before Uber would suffer particularly from their non-employees falling foul of the law. They are pretty good at making sue their own arses are covered.

    Sydney, West Island • Since Nov 2006 • 1193 posts Report Reply

  • MargaretB,

    Hi Ben - I'm an actual taxi driver and it's interesting to hear that you are having the same issues as us. It is far from lucritive and if I take $30 an hour in fares it's a good day. I don't own my own car so the owner pays me the princely sum of $16 an hour. He then has to also pay tax, gst, insurance, COF (and pre COF to ensure the car is never off the road) twice a year, maintenance, running costs, registration, and $750 a month to Blue Bubble to use their services. On a bad day we would just cover my wages. Some of the guys out there are putting in huge hours to make enough to get by but have been doing it for so long they don't know how to do anything else. It's certainly a job that's looked down on by a lot of people but, like yourself, I'm educated and intelligent and I actually enjoy the work (most of the time). I make enough to pay my bills and not much else but I know my boss makes nothing out of having me drive his car. The main money is on Friday and Saturday nights but I sure as hell don't want to be out there carting drunks around so I leave that for the hardy souls. The upsides are the flexibility to work when you wnat or need to and boy, do I meet some interesting people. Unlike Uber, we don't have the pay ap and have to just wear it when we drive across town to a job and there's nobody there. Uber hasn't come to our town yet and even if it did it wouldn't necessarily mean more people taking taxis - it'll just mean the same number of passengers will get spread thinner over more drivers, so everyone loses.

    Northland • Since May 2016 • 4 posts Report Reply

  • Ian Dalziel,

    In the Sydney Morning Herald today:
    http://www.smh.com.au/business/consumer-affairs/dumped-uber-driver-pleads-for-explanation-20160519-goz0dl.html

    "I asked Uber, if I did something really bad, really wrong, OK that's my fault," he said.
    "They said [it is] because your rating is low, that's why.
    "But of 1200 people, roughly 800 people gave me a rating of between 4-5 stars."
    Mr Qureshi, of Brisbane, is one of a growing number of drivers in Australia speaking out about the $80 billion Silicon Valley company's treatment of its contracted workforce.
    It comes as Fairfax Media revealed on Wednesday a Perth driver is suing the company for terminating his account suddenly in November, leaving him with $80,000 worth of car loan debt.
    http://www.theage.com.au/business/the-economy/driver-sues-uber-for-deactivating-account-20160517-gowsd5

    (My bolding)

    Christchurch • Since Dec 2006 • 7886 posts Report Reply

  • Alfie, in reply to MargaretB,

    Uber hasn’t come to our town yet and even if it did it wouldn’t necessarily mean more people taking taxis – it’ll just mean the same number of passengers will get spread thinner over more drivers, so everyone loses.

    Keep your eye on the bigger picture. Uber is actively involved in developing driverless cars.

    But Uber's big inconvenience is the fact it needs drivers, and so this line of research is about eliminating that final piece of the puzzle to boost profits even more.

    Uber isn't alone - rival ride-sharing service Lyft announced a tie-up with Chevrolet to use autonomous driving as well, but it's Uber that seems unstoppable in its goal to be the dominant force in global ground travel.

    Can you see where this is heading? Today's Uber drivers are mere pawns in the overall plan.

    Dunedin • Since May 2014 • 1381 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to MargaretB,

    Thanks for your comment MargaretB. It looks like you're in an ever so slightly better set of circumstances than the average Uber driver. None of them earn a wage at all. The entire business is off fares. No fare, no pay. Which is sometimes good, when fares are flooding in, but on the average case, it's looking like it's much worse than a wage. In fact, it's much worse than the minimum wage.

    The closest we got to a wage was the "guaranteed minimum rates". These were ONLY offered at drunk-o'clock.

    How flexible are your hours and location, though? If you don't own your car, I'd expect the employer to want to you to do some kind of minimum hours, and to work some kind of area?

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 10631 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Alfie,

    Keep your eye on the bigger picture. Uber is actively involved in developing driverless cars.

    I really don't see this as anywhere near the problem it is popularly seen to be. For starters, this is NZ, not Silicon Valley. And secondly, once driverless cars are possible, I think Uber's days are also numbered. Why pay Uber, when you could just own the car yourself?

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 10631 posts Report Reply

  • Alfie, in reply to BenWilson,

    I really don’t see this as anywhere near the problem it is popularly seen to be.

    Not yet. But note that line in the BBC story – “Uber’s ultimate goal is a complete end to car ownership – and it’s wasting no time.”

    Why pay Uber, when you could just own the car yourself?

    The capital cost. Why should people living in cities pay the overheads of vehicle ownership when a cheap, electric, driverless car will take you wherever at a reasonable cost.

    It may not happen overnight… but it will happen.

    Dunedin • Since May 2014 • 1381 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Alfie,

    The capital cost. Why should people living in cities pay the overheads of vehicle ownership when a cheap, electric, driverless car will take you wherever at a reasonable cost.

    There's reasons why driverless cars would be awesome IF they happen before I die.

    But why would it need to be an Uber? Currently they are a website, a database and an app. They don't even own any transport infrastructure anywhere. What you're talking about is a giant and fundamental transformation of their entire business model into something that is completely different to what they have. They'd be hardware suppliers who had to operate with proper transport licenses all around the world, insuring themselves and maintaining their own entire fleets. They don't currently do that anywhere. Their whole business model is built around distancing themselves from the actual dirty business of getting customers around. They don't even supply the routing software that helps me get from A to B, they just call Google for that.

    Have a think about how much it has cost them to set up a network of several thousand cars with drivers here? Almost NOTHING except legal bills, a sales force, and whatever giveaway rides they use to buy market share. The drivers themselves paid for everything else. Have a think about how much several thousand driverless cars would cost to set up, if they cost, say, $100,000 at the start. We're talking $200 million in set up costs.

    There's no way that they are throwing that kind of money at NZ. Then they'd have to get regulators on board, something they have zero experience with, quite the opposite, their primary experience is in getting offside with regulators. Then they'd have the much harder job of turning profit on all that capital investment. Gas to pay, insurance to pay, depreciation to write off, maintenance of vehicles to manage. Imagine the size and experience of a support team keeping 2,000 machines on the road, the staff cost? It wouldn't be the current 15 odd salespeople that they employ in NZ. Imagine the nightmare involved any time a software upgrade has to be rolled out in a way that requires some kind of hard-restart? Or what sort of disaster plan would need to be in place the day their servers die, or the vehicles find themselves unable to connect to the network?

    This is just in a comparatively small city like Auckland. Can we really see Uber managing the current growth around the world of about 50,000 driver per month? 50,000 cars per month at 100k each is 5 billion in capital expenditure every month, 60 billion a year. I really don't see them being able to do anything like that. They're a software company, not a hardware company. The margins just wouldn't be there. Each car would take years to pay itself off, because it would still have to be cheap to be competitive. It would have to be cheaper than the cost to people of buying and using a driverless car themselves. Quite a lot cheaper because it would not be as good to have to use a shared car than to have your own one with all your own stuff already in it. The margins would be TINY.

    So, yeah, driverless cars, YAY! Boon to the world! All part of Uber's big dream? Only if their dreams are usually wet. In practice, it's the end of Uber.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 10631 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson,

    Sorry to sound a bit ranty about that, it’s a pet hate of mine. Robotics has been around for decades and yet it hasn’t ended human labour. Not even close, it’s still way cheaper to set up factories that aren’t robotic, even in businesses where the robotics are well developed. Because humans are amazingly cheap machines for what they can do.

    To me the idea that Uber’s wet dream is the replacement of drivers is just symptomatic of how incredibly brutally and coldly they undervalue the one resource that made their entire fortune possible. It shows that they literally see their work forces as in the same category as machines, they literally think the same way about the flesh and blood out there making them billions as they would about a fucking robot. It pisses me off. Not just because it disgustingly undervalues humans, but because it’s so erroneous in its understanding of what they even do. Their wet dream won’t work.

    There’s something childish in the way they think. It might even seem cutely naive if it wasn’t so goddamned exploitative. Apparently the initial contacts that the drivers have been getting recently have involved staff from Uber being surprised that the drivers are incredibly pissed off. It’s like they can’t even conceive that the way they treated us all was so fucked up that the nation doesn’t even seem to believe it happened, and has no answer. Yet.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 10631 posts Report Reply

  • Alfie, in reply to BenWilson,

    I'd assume that Uber wouldn't buy or own the driverless vehicles, Ben. They'd attract investors to take care of that side of the business and continue to make even larger profits without the annoying involvement of those pesky wet robots.

    It may never happen. But everything I've read about Uber so far suggests that concern for their drivers is not a high priority.

    Dunedin • Since May 2014 • 1381 posts Report Reply

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