Ridesharing – The Highs, Lows, Hints and Mints,

You’d have to be living the life of a cave dwelling hermit, to not be aware of the massive change in the taxi industry across the globe. Most of us, especially the younger generations are very aware that the Dutch based American company Uber, has completely changed the way we think and use transport. Not many people under thirty say “Call a cab,” anymore, the catch cry is “Grab an Uber.” We all love it, the seemingly perfect solution to bad service, old, smelly, noisy cabs and aggressive, sullen drivers, not remotely interested in short destination fares.

My wife and I started using Uber a couple of years back, in fact our first Uber experience was in Sydney, our driver’s previous passenger had been Kim Beasley, the driver, a South African guy, was everything the normal taxi driver wasn’t – friendly, chatty, helpful and cheaper!

Earlier this year, having reached theoretical retirement age, meaning nobody wants to employ you – you’re too old, regardless of life skills and experience – I thought I’d look more closely at the what Uber had to offer. I’m a tour guide driver of old, I thrive on interaction with others, I really like people and drive a reasonable car. In fact more often than not, when I arrive, people say, “Oh my God, don’t tell me I’ve ordered an Uber Black!”

It proved somewhat tortuous – they really weren’t that keen on person to person contact, or answering questions, a bit like most big business these days I guess – you know the story – “You’ll find everything online, “ code for ‘WE DON’T TO TALK TO YOU! GO AWAY!”  I struggled on, purely as I felt the App-driven concept was brilliant and there had to be an interesting future for what has become known as the Rideshare industry. I was under no illusions that it was a full time proposition, but it did strike me it would have to be a reasonable source of extra income, perfect for somebody like me.

The delays in approval were agonisingly slow, any query I had as to progress, was met with bland, generic texts or emails, phone calls were obviously not even on a back agenda. I later learnt that at that point in time, Uber was overwhelmed with drivers, so people were put on the backburner, until needed. There appears to be about a three month churn factor, as drivers discover the rainbow is ephemeral and somebody’s already raided the pot!

About four weeks into the ludicrous machinations, (late March this year), another rideshare company appeared in the news – Shofer, with a different take on the rideshare game. With Uber, drivers – well, the euphemistic term Partners is used by Uber, but that’s corporate doublespeak bullshit – drivers supply their own vehicles and not only pay tax on what they earn, (as they should I hasten to add), they also pay the GST on the full amount the passenger pays – Uber pays no tax! How good is that for a business model! Is that Clive Palmer I hear weeping on the golf course at Coolum? Plus, they take a minimum of 20% of the gross fare, with newer drivers (post 1 April 2016) 25%, so if your fare is $20.00, the driver is actually payed $16.00, but then has to pay $2.00 GST, so his or her actual earn for the $20.00 trip, is $14.00. Of course, he or she has to pay for the fuel, all running costs and allow for depreciation. I know , I know, you can’t wait to sign up as a driver either!

Shofer, on the other hand, use their own cars, Toyota Camrys, usually hybrids and it has to be said they are the perfect vehicle for the task, roomy, very economical, quiet and Toyota tough, not to mention, that 18yr old Narelle, can Bluetooth her phone through the speaker system so she can play her music rather than the driver’s. Let me tell you, there is nothing quite so screechingly noisy as four inebriated teenage girls speaking over each other at top volume while playing some screaming talentless talent quest bird on the radio! Drivers carry Ibuprofen, they usually need it after a Friday or Saturday night. In short, Toyota’s Hybrid Camry is the best taxi in the business and Shofer’s business model is undoubtedly the best taxi model anywhere – safety is paramount with all cars camera equipped and even panic buttons for passengers and drivers alike.

Drivers pay a weekly fee of around $340.00 for the fully insured and equipped vehicle, that’s around $150.00 less than what a Bailee driver pays for a taxi each week. All the driver has to pay is the fuel, Shofer even supply the phone, so it really is a very fair and honourable system. The trouble is, nobody knows about it. Everybody thinks Uber, nobody thinks Shofer and Shofer is dearer than Uber, though cheaper then taxis and I suspect the majority of rideshare passengers are price driven. The example I often give, is that a $32.00 ride with a taxi, will cost $25.00 with Shofer and somewhere between $18.00 and $20.00 with Uber … unless there is an Uber surge on!

I was so intrigued with the Shofer business model, I decided to give it a go, but the lack of passenger numbers eventually saw me hand the car back. They are genuinely great people and I remain convinced, theirs is THE model for the future of the taxi industry, but without a substantial and sustained increase in marketing and advertising, the message will take too long to get out to the public, meanwhile, drivers are subsidising the service. Hopefully it’s changed, but I found I would go out for several soul destroying hours and get maybe two jobs for $50.00, after 200kms, then repeat the same journey using my own car as an Uber vehicle and earn $200.00 for 110kms. I should also add that Shofer takes nothing from the rideshare fee, their business model is based on leasing the car and phone fully insured. In the finish, as much as I like their concept, I simply could not afford to go on subsidising it. So I decided to try Uber on a more regular basis.

The work is there, make no mistake, if I turn on the Uber App before I back out of the garage, 90% of the time, it pings with a ride and it never stops. Sure, there are periods when things go quiet – 8.00pm – 10.00pm on a Friday or Saturday night and it’s a waste of time driving on Mondays, but apart from that, the business is constant. However you soon learn to drive smart.

Sticking around the CBD or Northbrdige on a Friday or Saturday night is a waste of time, traffic jams, kids wanting to hop half a kilometre from one bar to the next, which equates to maybe $4.00 for twenty five minutes, thanks but no thanks. And you can’t find anybody – they’ll request an Uber at the bar, then take ten minutes to come out, all six of them, wanting to fit in the car. I know people find it very hard to get an Uber out of James or Murray Streets, in the early hours of the morning, let me give you a tip – walk to Roes Street or Milligan Street and call from there, an Uber will pick you up in two minutes. Another tip if you’re at the Casino – it’s difficult to find people, walk out to the hotel on the corner and call for the Uber there, the cars will get to you very quickly.

It all sounds good, BUT, Uber consistently reduce the fares, the name of the game being to squeeze any competitor out.  “Great!” You say! But they also increase their commission, all the while urging drivers to provide bottled water and mints to passengers – at the drivers expense! It’s usually only the young passengers going half a kilometre who ask for water and mints, I always tell them they’ve had a win with the reduced fares, so truthfully, there’s no money to supply free water and mints. Some pout, others see the point.

There are substantial benefits for the community – young people are no longer drink driving, they catch an Uber and that’s not a market taxis ever had, Uber created it, so socially, every Uber on the road is helping reduce road trauma and making our roads safer. That’s a huge as yet unrealised benefit (by the authorities), the trouble is, every Uber driver is subsidising every passenger and every Uber driver is treated with contempt and disdain by Uber generating a virtually complete breakdown in trust between drivers and Uber.

The great shame of all this distrust, is that ridesharing is a brilliant 21st century concept, it’s just that Uber have applied 19th / 20th century employer attitudes to their drivers.
It is actually very similar to the majority of mining companies – where the employee is treated like an idiot child, with no respect, hidden beneath a thin veneer of care. And really, Uber’s absolute insistence, on no person to person contact and reliance on bland data driven text responses, is no different from say dealing with a telco or a government department.

Just watch and listen to a politician avoiding answering questions, or reacting as say Colin Barnett – getting angry and confrontational if questioned. The sad reality is Uber treats drivers exactly as most other businesses and large employers do, although it’s important not to single out Uber as being any different to most large companies – they simply do not see any value in their drivers (employees) as individuals with skills.

Collectively, Uber drivers hate it, but are powerless to do anything. Question a public servant or demand an answer, or respect and you know very well you’re going to the back of the queue. Question an employer and there goes your job, or at the very least, any opportunity of advancement. Question Uber and they’ll disconnect you from the system, no ifs, no buts and certainly no explanations and sometimes, they’ve convinced some poor bastard to buy a car on hire purchase, all the while steadily reducing his possible income with fare reductions and more and more cars on the road. Quality will not be sustainable and already taxi drivers are coming over to Uber, bringing with them the entrenched attitudes that brought the industry to virtual oblivion.

Just two things would make the job viable – a 15% – 20% increase in fare structure and payment of the GST by Uber. The only other need would be genuine respect for the drivers.
Now it’s not going to happen, but how interesting would it be to see Richard Branson, open up a Virgin Rideshare business, applying the business ethics and moral principles he so strongly insists on. He could cherry pick the best drivers and vehicles and unlike an excellent provider like Shofer, he has no need to build a brand, Virgin is known and trusted across the world.  Wishful thinking aside – well, I did Tweet the idea to him today – I can see the rideshare game is a developing business, it’s nowhere near its full potential or final guise and is crying out for decency.

If you like using Uber, spare a thought for the ordinary hard working man or woman behind the wheel, you might think it’s irrelevant to keep them waiting for four or five minutes before you go out the door, you might think you’re socially above them, you might even feel you are absolutely entitled to water and mints and you can wield enormous power over the driver, by not awarding them five stars.

Did you know if you keep awarding drivers three or four stars, which realistically may seem fair and very reasonable under normal circumstances, Uber has a very different take on three and four stars, they look on a three or a four as bad bad and very quickly will cut a driver off the system as punishment.  And don’t think Uber’s not coming for you, they are primarily a data gathering company. Yes, Uber is now the biggest taxi company in the world, yet they don’t own any vehicles – well, there are no doubt company cars for senior managers, but to understand what the company really is about, take a look at your mobile phone and see what Uber is learning about you 24hrs a day.

The Uber rideshare concept is brilliant and I remain eternally optimistic that a Richard Branson will introduce ethics to the concept, meanwhile, if you like a driver and his or her car, ask for their card / phone number, call and pre-book them when next you need an Uber. When you get in their car, that’s when you use the app, with the call going to the nearest vehicle, in this case, the one you’re sitting in. Better still, as is more frequently happening, when you call your favourite driver to pre-book, pay him or her what Uber would have charged you, just give the driver the cash, it’s not going to cost you anymore and you’ll have looked after the person looking after you.

One more thing, safety, the State Government has brought in some sensible requirements for ridershare drivers – all drivers must have an F or T Class license extension, all rideshare cars (Uber or Shofer) must have a full annual safety inspection and a valid Omnibus license (for the vehicle), copies of this paperwork MUST be carried in the car and produced on demand. If I felt something was not quite right, I would also insist that the driver show me written proof that he or she has Rideshare insurance. The driver must also produce, on request, a colour photograph, in other words, his or her license. There is very good in-built safety in the Uber system – as the passenger, you get the driver’s name, picture, mobile phone number, make of vehicle and car registration when you book the ride, take a quick look when you make the booking and if the vehicle arriving is different, or the driver looks different, don’t get in, ask to see the paperwork and driver’s license.

But if everything’s kosher and 99.99% of the time, it is, then spare a thought for the slave labour and conditions the person taking you safely to your destination is working under. One thing is for sure, neither Uber, nor the State Government could care less about the person you’re entrusting your safety to. Maybe you might like to write to Uber and your local MP, that way you’ll ensure ridesharing remains the wonderful answer to modern city transport needs it has already become. It’s up to you, the market dictates. Enjoy the ride
PS: The thought of an ex tour guide and roadtrain driver with 50+ years of safe driving experience and a black S60 Volvo sedan with leather and woodgrain appealed to a lot of riders, but I stopped driving Uber in December last year, as I couldn’t justify the income and hours versus the meagre (loss-making returns).

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