Driving For Uber

After leaving my job, I temporarily decided to become an Uber driver while I found another job. I figured it was an easy way to make some money and I figured I would enjoy it because I love driving.

 

Part 1: Becoming an Uber Driver

The first step to becoming an Uber driver is registering online at the Uber website. On the website, I gave them my personal information, car information, banking information (for direct deposits) and sent a picture of my driver’s license. That process took about 5 minutes. I then watched about 20 minutes worth of films about being an Uber driver and took some quick quizzes. Finally, I consented to a background check (whether the check was done or not is unknown)

I was then told to find one of the Uber Activation Centers. LA has 17 of them. I went to the West LA center just off Santa Monica Boulevard near Sawtelle. The “center” was merely a parking lot. At one end of the lot, there were two black tents like you would find at a tailgate. The Uber employees were seated underneath the tents behind cheap tables wearing black company shirts and sunglasses. As I walked up to the table, I could tell they were totally judging me and my car.

The man at the end of the table asked me for my name and said “oh” like he was expecting me – he must have had a list of everyone who registered on the website. After presenting him my driver’s license, I was told I had to help perform an inspection with an on-site mechanic. We walked over to the car. First, he asked me the mileage and checked for any major damage on the car. Then, I got in the car, turned it on, and lowered all the windows. Then, I honked the horn and tested the blinkers, brake lights and windshield wipers. At the end, he told me my rear brakes and windshield wipers needed replacing. If I did that, he would give me a pass. Shockingly absent from this inspection was any test of the car in motion or at least running in neutral (engine, suspension, acceleration) or my driving ability. Just because I passed a test at 16 does not mean I would be a good Uber driver.

In the afternoon, I got the brake pads and windshield wipers replaced. I then drove back to the parking lot, but they had closed for the day.

The next day, I got the car re-inspected and passed. I then went back to the desk where they processed my registration and insurance. I was then given an email that contains a link to download the Uber Partner app (which cannot be downloaded from the App Store). I was then given the official Uber “welcome package”, which is nothing more than an envelope containing instructions on how to be an Uber driver, the Uber decal to put in my windshield, and an auxiliary port so riders can play music.

After that, I was free to start driving. This was surprising to me given that I consented to the background check only a day ago and most background checks take at least a few days to a week to process. Either Uber has a very efficient background check or they were willing to let me slide for awhile.

 

Part 2: Logistics of Being an Uber Driver:

 

The Uber Partner app is different from the normal Uber app. Only Uber drivers can access it. On it, you can view your Uber rating, update your contact info and documents, and review all your trip and earnings.  On the homescreen there is a button to “Go Online”. Once I go online, you can accept rides that will ping on your phone. The rider’s name and rider rating (but no picture) will show up and you can accept the ride by tapping the screen within 10 seconds. Once accepted, you will learn the pickup location. You can choose to use a navigation system (Apple Maps, Google Maps, or Uber’s own navigation system) to direct you to the pickup location.

Once at the pickup location, Uber will automatically notify the rider that you have arrived. If they do not show up, there is a way to contact them by text or phone call. When doing this, both your number and their number are masked. If for some reason the rider does not show, you can cancel the ride. Depending on the reason, you will earn $5 for the effort.

Once the rider gets in the car, you have to swipe to acknowledge that the rider has gotten into the car. Then and only then do you find out where the rider wants to go. This solves the problem of drivers refusing rides because they are too close or too far, which has happened to me in a cab at LAX.

At the end of the ride, you slide the app again and immediately rate the rider on a 5-point scale. I think I always gave people 5 stars even if they didn’t necessarily deserve it.  That said, I never had a truly bad rider experience. Both riders and drivers have ratings. In LA, a driver must have at least a 4.7 star rating. If you dip below 4.7, you apparently get a warning and then you are deactivated. My first few rides were rocky since I didn’t know how to really use the app. Within two days, my driver rating dropped to 4.71 and I was legitimately nervous. My rating has since rebounded.

While the app gives you a choice, I use the Uber app for directions when online. One complaint of the app is that it disables my car’s Bluetooth, so the app can only talk through the phone’s speakers. This makes it difficult to hear the directions and impossible to hear directions if the rider wants to listen to music. There is definitely a learning curve for this and I had a couple rides where I missed turns because of the app not talking to me or giving me faulty directions (usually I would end up in an alley behind an apartment building when the rider was out front).

One interesting feature of the Uber Partner App is the “heat map” that shows areas that have surge pricing. The map is red where the surge is higher.

In my experience rides will ping every few minutes, so finding a ride is not difficult.

The big question is how much do you make driving Uber. Of the total fares, Uber takes a 20% cut- you as the driver get the remaining 80%. In total, I made about $300 from a week of driving Uber which equates to about $12-15/hour and an average fare of about $8.  However, this is a gross figure and doesn’t take into account the expenses involved in driving including gas, car repairs, and depreciation on the car. Gas is quite expensive in LA (well over $3/gallon). Additionally Uber does not withhold taxes, so immediately I would have to deduct 30% of the paycheck for Uncle Sam.

I believe there are two ways to increase revenue as an Uber driver. First, try to drive in surge areas. This accounted for at about 30% of my income driving. Had I been smarter with the times and areas where I was driving, I could have probably increased my income by a good deal.  Another way I could have increased my driving is to drive in less dense areas. Uber in LA costs 90 cents/mile but only 15 cents/minute. Therefore, it doesn’t really pay well to be stuck in traffic. Driving somewhere like the San Fernando Valley where the distances are longer would result in higher Uber fares albeit more mileage/depreciation on the car.

All in all, being an Uber driver is a fun and decent job considering that you set your own hours and the barriers to entry are low. I would not recommend doing this as a career since you really don’t make much money and because of all the hidden costs.

 

Part 3: Notable Uber Rides

Note: all the names have been changed

 

My first Uber ride:

I turn on the app parked outside my home in Pacific Palisades at 2:30 pm and within 2 minutes, I get a buzz from Alvin. He’s at Paul Revere Middle School. After driving up to the school, I get a call saying he is hanging out in front of the school. Eventually I arrive and discover that Alvin is a 12-year old middle schooler with two younger friends-one boy and one girl.

*Phew. Luckily the bar is set low for me to start. The first 3 minutes are silent. Alvin then asks how long I’ve been driving Uber. I mistakenly tell him it’s my very first trip and he tenses up. More silence and small talk. I’m good at talking to people but I really don’t know what to say to a middle schooler who’s about to give me my first paycheck.

Eventually Alvin asks me about my car. He is confused why I keep moving the shifter. I explain that I have a manual car and that I have to shift the gears to make the car speed up. Alvin looks down at the clutch in awe.

Alvin then asks to play some music and I hook him into the auxiliary port Uber just gave me. He puts on the music and it’s a hip hop beat. Suddenly, the lyrics come on and they are the dirtiest lyrics I have maybe ever heard. All three of them start bobbing their heads and ask to turn it up. We roll the windows down and blast the rap music all the way back to their house in Westwood where I drop them off.

 

Funniest customer:

I’m in Hollywood and just dropped off a lady who was an amateur photographer and asked if I was willing at some point in the future to do nude modeling for her when I get a ping from Jeff. He is at the LA Film School on Sunset. He’s going to the Comedy Store in West Hollywood.

“So Jeff, what brings you to the Comedy Store?”

“I’m actually performing a standup routine there tonight”

“Oh good because this car actually runs on jokes instead of gas. Have any good ones?”

“Well standup isn’t really “joke” based, its mostly about stories.”

“Oh”

Jeff then tells me how he won an Oscar for special effects on the Lord of the Rings (one of those that gets its own awards show on a different night that nobody watches). Apparently, the majority of the film editing and special effects industry has moved to New Zealand and Australia where they don’t charge for overtime. While he likes the work, he would prefer to live and work in Los Angeles. He also said he lives on a boat in Marina Del Rey. A slip there costs $400/month and a boat can cost as little as $3,500. Not bad considering the average 1 bedroom is now $1800/month and you get the coolness factor of living on a boat. The one downside is that the showers are on land and are shared by multiple people.

 

Craziest Uber Ride:

After dropping off a navy sailor at his boat in San Diego, I got a ping from Jessica at a house in Ocean Beach.

After five minutes, still no response so I call her.

Five minutes later, she walks out with a huge dog.

“Oh you’re so great. Thanks for waiting. Isn’t my dog AMAZING?!”

“Yeah I guess”

*2 minutes later

“So what are you going to Pacific Beach for?”

“Actually I’m going on a Tinder date…to be honest you’re way cuter”

“Thanks”

“I mean how funny would it be if I FUCKED the Uber driver?”

“ummm”

“Are you a drug dealer?”

“No, I don’t do drugs”

“Good because I usually only date drug dealers and this will be a nice change. I just got off birth control and I’m super horny. Can we go home?”

“Listen, its your Uber and I can take you wherever you want to go, but it ends there.”

“Really?!?”

“Yeah….”

“Well I guess I’ll just go home, cut to the chase and have him come over. It was worth a shot.”

“Sounds like a great idea. I’m rooting for you”

 

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