Uber: The Reality Behind the Fantasy
by Lisa Sandoval
November 7, 2017
Although hailed as a new technology that transforms the average, industrious citizen into a business owner with only that underutilized asset in their driveway, the Uber phenomenon is essentially yet another capitalist endeavor to extract maximum profits from cheap labor. It has its place in the “gig economy” where technology allows workers to be contracted in response to demand for services and paid only according to work accomplished while receiving no benefits. It also belongs in a wider sense amid current trends of cost-cutting via outsourcing to independent contractors and other companies, who again do not have to be offered standard benefits like health care. The result is there remains a clear class divide in terms of power and income between those who are engaged to use the means of production to generate capital and those who own the means of production.
Yet a very interesting feature of the current situation is how Uber’s marketing attempts to cover over this divided class reality. Indeed, upon examination I find that the marketing mantras of Uber - those directed towards potential drivers - are designed to appeal to the desire of the working and middle classes to transcend their socioeconomic situation and become the capitalist winners, while in truth while driving Uber these people are still being used to meet the capitalists’ need for low-cost, flexible, disposable, disorganized labor to maximize profits. An online commentator expresses the myth perfectly: “I can now do what all the wealthy business owners do and expense everything including food and get taxed on very little… This will … [help] the middle class take more control of their lives and money.” Or will it?
One way in which Uber’s advertising obscures the class gap between drivers and company executives is by portraying drivers as professionals, instead of as the amateurs they generally are. A perusal of Uber’s website shows this sense of professionalism being created via the images of shiny, new, clean cars and smiling drivers in casual business attire. All four men on the home page are wearing collared shirts. It could be an intention behind these images to create a contrast between the crisp yet relaxed Uber drivers standing by their sparkling cars and the public’s complaints of American taxis: dirty windows, duck-taped seats, failing suspension, and drivers swearing, speeding, and speaking broken English. The Uber images suggest their drivers are confident, on top of their game, skillfully conducting their own private business from the “office” of their car. They may even be creative professionals driving as a side gig: “Jenny,” a young business owner quoted on the site, says that “Uber enables me to have the creative freedom for baking my cakes and also driving on the side so I can make more money and also have my dream job” while “Sean” says that Uber lets him be a musician and “realize [his] goals” and “pursue [his] dreams.” Drivers are referred to as “partners,” hinting that they are not lowly employees reporting to Uber but independent professionals in their own right.
Uber attempts to sell drivers on the benefits of flexibility, which helps hide Uber’s disproportionate benefit from that flexibility. Uber’s advertising claims that by driving Uber, drivers will have more time to spend with their families or to pursue their passion. True, drivers are completely free to choose when to work. The first catch is that busy times are Friday and Saturday nights, weekends, and rush hours. To work at other times usually means lots of waiting in the car and lower earnings, regardless of the city. So if one wanted to work efficiently and make a more reasonable hourly income one is obliged to work during the busy times. However, and this is the second catch, Uber uses advertising, incentives, rewards and the like to inflate the supply of drivers. This increases Uber’s revenue because drivers are available when riders need them, and riders are more likely to choose Uber when rides are available within minutes. And Uber experiences no opportunity cost when drivers sit idle. Drivers, on the other hand, earn less when high competition causes them to wait longer to get a passenger. A New York Times article shows one simulation in which, for a given rate of passenger ride requests, increasing in the number of available drivers decreases the number of minutes passengers have to wait but also substantially increases the proportion of drivers sitting idle. Thus, an oversupply of drivers benefits Uber by allowing more rides overall to be given even if individual drivers get less. Another simulation in the same article shows how fewer drivers on the road allows higher hourly earnings per driver but a lower total commission for Uber, while more drivers on the road leads to drivers earning less but Uber taking in more.
Uber’s advertising further creates the myth of drivers as entrepreneurs and business owners by emphasizing that drivers are their own bosses with control over their work hours and earnings. Slogans like “Drive when you want / Make what you need” and “Work that puts you first” imply this idea. But Uber drivers do not have the power of business owners. Uber retains the right to kick a driver off the platform for low ratings or other issues. Although small business owners should find themselves obliged to maintain a certain level of customer service and performance to retain customers, no one could “fire” them from their jobs, whereas Uber can essentially do that. The drivers do not set the fares, Uber does, and drivers have no recourse when Uber decides to reduce fares as it has done in San Francisco since the beginning. A standard pricing scheme for a technology product that helps someone do their job would be a flat monthly or yearly rate. For example, a free-lancing graphic designer might subscribe to the Adobe Creative Suite for a monthly price. But Uber takes a booking fee and 20% of fares, at the time of this writing, making the app less of a tool drivers use to make money, and more of a technique of binding drivers to the Uber business model. Finally, Uber uses techniques of psychological manipulation common to the gaming industry to encourage drivers to work more.
Additionally, Uber’s advertising attempts to sell the work to potential drivers by emphasizing the recreational benefits of ride-sharing. The website quotes “Katrina” in Seattle as saying, “I wanted something where I could meet new people and get out of the house. Uber has helped with both of those things, plus I’m seeing new parts of the city I’ve never seen before!” “David” in San Francisco says, “Why do I drive? 50% the money, 50% the fun—and the fun part is the people.” The implication is that driving Uber does not belong in a category of monotonous, repetitive, or boring low-wage employment because Uber is fun and exciting, so much so that you might want to do it just for the experience, as “Katrina” does above, while receiving the added bonus of getting paid to have fun, as does “David.” In other words, the Uber driver is not someone who might otherwise be earning minimum wage working retail, but someone whose basic needs are taken care of who is looking for some excitement in life. And the advertising also suggests driving Uber is definitely not the same as driving a taxi, which in the US at least tends not to be viewed as very desirable employment. My point is that this marketing could appeal to people struggling to make ends meet with minimum wage employment because it creates the fantasy that Uber could transform them from people trying to survive into people working for fun.
And yet, the impersonal nature of the technology also impedes drivers’ ability to do the one thing that the working class can do to increase its bargaining power vis-à-vis the capitalist class, which is to organize themselves. The app ensures that drivers do not need to talk to each other to find out where the best spots are. The app tells them that. Drivers are in competition with each other and it is to their benefit to be as far away from each other as possible. There are no communal spaces in which drivers can meet, such as the taxi yard, the bus depot, the company office, the rest stop. The only communal place I know of in the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, is the designated parking lot at the airport, where the drivers tend to sit in their own cars.
And finally, the jury is still out on whether you can actually make money driving Uber. Someone I know drove Uber in Phoenix, Arizona for a few months in addition to her full-time receptionist position to save money for an upcoming move. She told me she earned about $150 driving Friday, Saturday, and sometimes Sunday nights, from about 8 pm to 2 am. Let’s say in the best case scenario she earned the $150 driving Friday and Saturday only. So she would have earned $150 in 12 hours, assuming she didn’t stop for any long bathroom breaks. At best, she would have earned $12.50/hour. But what were her expenses? The New York Times simulation puts driver expenses at 10 cents/minute, which is $6/hour. I did a quick calculation: assuming that gas costs $2.50/gallon in Arizona, that she drove an average of 30 miles/hour, and that her car (a Honda Fit) got 33 MPG, she would have used .9 gallons of gas per hour at a cost of $2.25/hour. So her net earnings would have been $10.25, not counting the fact that her car was depreciating in value faster, that when she sold it she would get less in return, and that her next servicing would come faster than if she were not adding so many miles to the car. Add to this the fact that she earned $17/hour at her full-time job as a medical receptionist and it starts to look like driving Uber was a very inefficient use of her time.
The results of others’ calculations appear no more promising. A post on the US Ride-Hail Driver’s Association website offers a spreadsheet in which, in addition to gas expenses, the author added a “car cost per mile” of 54 cents into the equation. With this attempt to put a value on the car’s depreciation, he finds that UberX drivers actually lose money by driving. He does not explain how he determined the car’s cost at 54 cents/mile. A staff writer for the Ridester website cites self-reported income data from SherpaShare, a financial analytics website, then subtracts estimated expenses from the average wage and reports that aside from New York City, where drivers make an average of $20.54/hour, driver earnings in the major cities in the US range from a low of $8.11/hour in Nashville to a high of $12.80/hour in Boston. Uber does a good job of hiding the fact that driving UberX is low-wage employment by emphasizing how easy it is to get started and make money (“Earn more at every turn”) and by reporting average driver earnings of $19.04/hour rather than the reality for most places.
So let’s banish the “be your own boss” myth of Uber, the fantasy that freedom and prosperity are as close as the car in your driveway. UberX is minimum-wage employment that rapidly depreciates a valuable personal asset. The Uber app is a clever invention to make money off hard-working people, and its advertising helps create the myth that drivers can escape their class reality and become capitalists themselves for once. This isn’t to say that Uber or any of its competitors are doing anything out of the ordinary in a capitalist society - they’re just doing it in a new way. Nor would we expect Uber’s advertising to be anything other than what it is. But just as one generally takes the claims on one’s shampoo bottle with a grain of salt (or do you?), we need to collectively shed the hope that any aspect of the fantasy created by Uber’s advertising might be real. In most of the United States, Uber remains the employment of choice only for people who don’t really need the money and like driving and meeting people, or for those who are truly desperate, unemployed or underemployed, and hopefully looking for a better alternative. The fact that Uber still appeals to so many people attests to the fact that many in the working and middle classes of the United States really are tired of feeling like second-class economic citizens and, sadly, that the US economy is producing “vast armies of underemployed people” ripe for exploitation.
Comment by username “onlyliveonce,” July 1, 2016. URL lost.
Uber, accessed on Nov. 28, 2017. https://www.uber.com.
Noam Scheiber, “How Uber Uses Psychological Tricks to Push Its Drivers’ Buttons,” The New York Times, April 2, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/04/02/technology/uber-drivers-psychological-tricks.html?_r=0.
Noam Scheiber, “How Uber Uses Psychological Tricks.”
“Start Driving With Uber.” Uber, Accessed on Nov. 28, 2017. https://www.uber.com/drive/.
Noam Scheiber, “How Uber Uses Psychological Tricks.”
Rich Brunelle, “Why Is Uber Making More On The Trip Than We Are?” US Ride-Hail Driver’s Association, July 4, 2016. https://rideassociation.wordpress.com/2016/07/04/why-is-uber-making-more-on-the-trip-than-we-are/
“How Much Do Uber Drivers Make in 2017? [The Inside Scoop],” Ridester, last updated November 9, 2017. https://www.ridester.com/how-much-do-uber-drivers-make/.
“Start Driving With Uber.”
Driving jobs vs driving with Uber,” Uber, accessed on November 28, 2017. https://www.uber.com/driver-jobs/. The $19.04/hour is for the year 2014, so it is possible that this amount may have been accurate in San Francisco at that time when less drivers were on the road and fares were higher.
David Weil, top wage-and-hour official under President Barack Obama, quoted in Noam Scheiber, “How Uber Uses Psychological Tricks.”