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Social experiment of media executive as a Uber driver

One key takeaway from this experience was that Uber needs to do a better job of educating riders about this new service. Ideally, the company should alert the rider in advance to expect a private car with a non-commercial number-plate and possibly a co-rider-cum-driver (and not the typical ‘bhaiyaajee’ driver).

I’ve always been fascinated by how the Uber/Ola model works, and often been annoyed at comments about how these companies are cheating their driver-partners (mostly based on nothing more than hearsay and a tiny data set). So, a few weeks ago when a friend told me that Uber had started a new scheme under which anyone with a car could sign up to be an UberPool driver, I jumped at the chance to find out for myself if this really worked — and maybe settle those nagging debates once and for all. This happened a couple of weeks ago. I signed up with Uber in Delhi and got approved within two days to officially become a driver. Once you sign the new carpool agreement, you are good to go since you can use your own car as a ride-share vehicle, and don’t need a special commercial license. It basically means that you are sharing your own ride with other riders. The sign-up process was easy. Download the Uber Partner App, upload your license and RC with other details. Uber would verify and approve it within two days. Cars registered before 2010 are not allowed.

So there I was with my driver’s badge and driver app — ready to pick up other riders. Uber allows you to set your destination so that only riders on that route are matched. If you don’t set the destination then be ready to get all requests.

Why I wanted to do this

I have been an Uber rider since the company first launched its services in Mumbai back in 2014. My first ride was in a Mercedes E Class (yes, those were the days Uber only had luxury cars in its fleet). Since then, I have taken over 242 rides using Uber and spent close to six days inside their cabs, a statistic I found thanks to the nifty Uber Totals. Uber and Ola have made a significant difference to both riders and drivers. They have created a great source of income for thousands of drivers across India and single-handedly enabled many drivers to become tax-paying citizens with liberal payouts and incentives. Those of us who end up talking to drivers during rides often hear interesting stories. This leads to confusion sometimes as anecdotes heard from a few drivers are shared on social media, often passed around as gospel truth about how these companies deal with drivers. Discussions range from daily/monthly incentives being earned by drivers, to their personal stories, to confusion around the exact models based on which such incentives/revenue-share works. There is usually a lot of conflicting and contradictory information. I’ve always wondered if it was possible to be literally in the driver’s seat and understand it
first-hand.

The game is on I was a bit nervous that night as I decided to head home from my office (both in Gurgaon). It was 10pm on a Friday when I first went online. I defined my destination and waited for my first ride. The phone started beeping soon after and I was on! I was being called to Cyber Hub (two minutes away from my office) and I got the basic details about my first rider like her name, ratings and type of car she requested (it was UberGo). I accepted the ride and was really nervous as I headed towards the location. I reached there within two minutes — but I got an alert saying the “client has cancelled the ride”. I don’t know if I was more disappointed or relieved. Soon after that, I got another request — which was also cancelled within two minutes! I was wondering if this had something to do with riders finding my car type and/or my profile picture a bit unusual and deciding to not take a chance (this is the NCR after all!).

The next day, I decided to give it another try. Within a few seconds, I got my first request and I immediately got a call from the guy who had booked a ride. After I said hello, there was a pause of about 10 seconds. Then the guy at the other end asked if I was a commuter or a driver. I explained the situation to him and got a pretty unusual request. He was wondering if I could pick up his charger from his office and drop it at his house 30 km away (do people often do this? I wonder). Since I wanted a real rider, I requested him to cancel and he obliged.

I accepted another request and this time the rider was just 100 meters away. I reached the spot immediately and could make out that the rider was a bit taken aback to see me. She came closer and asked if she could cancel the ride as “she wasn’t comfortable.” She cancelled and I moved on.

One key takeaway from this experience was that Uber needs to do a better job of educating riders about this new service. Ideally, the company should alert the rider in advance to expect a private car with a non-commercial number-plate and possibly a co-rider-cum-driver (and not the typical ‘bhaiyaajee’ driver).

I immediately got another alert and accepted. This time the rider seemed excited to see me (or so I’d like to believe) and asked if she could get two of her friends along. We started the ride and this time I was in the “driver’s seat”. That bunch of young women had so many questions. I dropped them and earned my first income as a driver. I made ₹271 including a ₹100 toll that I never paid (something Uber needs to fix).

On May 1, I saw that surge pricing was back in Delhi after the 15-day odd-even experiment ended. I decided to go online again as I wanted to settle a very old debate that was taking place across social media about surge pricing and its implication on both riders and drivers. Some people believed — based on anecdotal evidence — that the surge was created by Uber/Ola to increase their earnings and drivers don’t want it as they don’t earn anything extra. I found that quite unbelievable and today was my opportunity to kill that rumour.

Luckily, I got a rider under 1.3x surge and decided to accept it. I expected to have an interesting chat with the rider from the driver’s seat but unfortunately the customer did not seem interested in talking and sat silently in the back seat throughout the journey (my ego felt a bit dented at this point). Anyway, I finished the ride (phew!) and was eager to see the earnings.

I got this receipt which clearly showed that the surge benefit had been passed on to me in full — thus settling that debate once and for all.

I posted this on Twitter, which led to some heated debates. Some still argued that this wasn’t the case, despite me presenting real proof. People claimed many drivers had told them otherwise, hence they chose to believe them.

I think this confusion arises because most of the drivers are not owners and are paid fixed salaries by their owners. Plus, I inquired further and got to know that incentives and promotional payouts are paid over and above the revenue share from the fare and the two are not interlinked. Uber/Ola pay fixed incentives per ride and also pay additional incentives for completing a fixed number of rides. That money is given to the driver separately.

A few learnings from this experience:

There is a huge demand for cabs. Requests were coming in constantly.
Many people are still not ready to ride in a personal car (for safety reasons, I presume).
Uber needs to promote this concept more for people to accept it
₹7 to 8/km plus base fare is not good enough to recover your costs if you run a petrol car delivering an average of ₹10/km (calculated using the kilometer-per-liter rate of my car).Shorter rides are much more beneficial and can deliver up to ₹15/16 per km thanks to the base fare.
Surge benefits are passed on to the drivers. Drivers with commercial plates get incentives on top of that.
Even at 3x surge, the demand was very high, thus proving that people who really want a ride go for it.

I may continue with my experiments over the next few days. You can follow me on Twitter to keep a track of my whereabouts and hopefully we may ride together soon!
Deepak Abbot writes about mobile marketing, product, and data analytics, and currently heads Mobile Growth at Times Internet. Previously, he was the head of Product Marketing at Paytm.

Disclosure: Abbot’s employer is an investor in Uber India.

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