Uber can’t be defeated from the outside—but maybe from within

Cab drivers won’t get government intervention. But perhaps Uber’s potential downfall could come from its own system.

Adam Berry/Getty Images

Adam Berry/Getty Images

Another day, yet another taxi strike in downtown Toronto, clogging up streets and disrupting traffic, all with the intent to convince us that Uber, a technological gizmo undercutting a once-robust monopoly, is evil. Their hatred has risen to such a point that, earlier Wednesday afternoon, one taxi driver, upon seeing a car he believed was an Uber vehicle, attempted to bash the driver-side window in with his fist. When the driver of the car began to make a hasty getaway, the cabbie clung to the side of the vehicle, and was dragged toward the intersection of Queen and Bay. The cab driver in question compared Uber to the so-called Islamic State, the extremist Islamic fundamentalist cult. News cameras captured it all.

The whole exercise was, as Robyn Urback at the National Post rightly pointed out, a public relations disaster. There is perhaps no quicker way to convince Torontonians—or anyone—that Uber might be a better alternative than to watch those trying to uphold the status quo (that is, the cab drivers) behave like lunatics and, more simply, make life tougher for everyone. After all, Uber’s main attraction is its simplicity: you hail a car on your smartphone, you don’t have to tip and, most important, you pay less in the end.

And yet, one might sympathize with the cabbies’ frustrations. They, like those in the hotel industry are with AirBnB, fighting a sub-economy—one just beyond the reaches of governmental interference, and where businesses don’t rely on traditional infrastructure to thrive. Uber, it should be remembered, isn’t a business in the way we usually think of businesses—certainly not car services. Uber isn’t really anything at all. It’s just a medium through which someone with a car connects with someone who needs to go somewhere. Put this way, what exactly would government be regulating?

Case in point: when, earlier this fall, Toronto’s city hall voted to bring Uber under by-law regulation (requiring Uber to apply as a taxi or limousine brokerage), and make Uber connect riders only with licensed cabs, Uber Canada’s general manager said they “have no intention of complying with that request.” Why not? Perhaps because even if cities like Toronto fine Uber drivers for non-compliance, police “aren’t able to prove that a transaction took place.”

The cab drivers’ hopes for government intervention are dashed further when you consider simple modern politics. Ingrained in voters minds, for better or worse, is the idea that a government ought to be voter- (read: consumer) friendly. What mayor or city councillor vying for re-election will take a stand against a product people love? Especially when opposing it means defending something most people kind of hate?

So what is to be done? If the government can’t do much, is there any way to stop Uber? Perhaps not. Certainly not, it appears anyway, from the outside. But what about from within?

Get into any Uber car and the driver will likely tell you that working for Uber is a great way to buttress another income they earn elsewhere. In fact, usually conversations with Uber drivers, if they happen, are upbeat. In a way, they ought to be: the driver wants a good rating and so does the passenger. But elsewhere, some drivers have expressed annoyance with Uber and its almighty algorithm.

A recent workshop paper for the Center for European Policy Studies by a pair of researchers from New York University and the Data & Society Research Institute interviewed Uber drivers and monitored online driver forums. They concluded that the very ideas Uber uses to promote itself and its business model might not necessarily be what they seem. “Uber’s claims regarding its labour model—which center on freedom, flexibility, and entrepreneurship—are not borne out in the experience of Uber drivers, in large part due to the information asymmetries and controls that Uber exerts over driver behaviours through performance metrics, behavioural nudges, unreliable, dynamic rates, and scheduling prompts, and design.”

For example, according to the study, Uber has “full power to control and change the base rate its drivers charge,” and allows drivers to negotiate a lower fare but not a higher one. At their lowest, “these rates are discussed in forums as a net-loss for drivers after factoring in overhead costs.”

Drivers can also have the money they made reduced if a customer complains. As one former Uber customer service representative wrote: “We would track a rider’s travel route and check it against any ‘best routes’ alternatives, then adjust the final charge up or down based on computer-generated fare estimates.” That is, if the computer thinks you, as a driver, could have gone a better way—no matter what obstacles you might have come across in the real world—your fare is reduced.

The rating system passengers have, which “directly impact” a driver’s employment eligibility, is also a point of contention. “Uber monitors drivers’ ratings, customers rate drivers on their Uber experience, and the company deactivates drivers whose ratings drop too low, although the cut-off point is a shifting target,” the NYU report states. Last year at Quartz, one Uber driver who formally worked as a private luxury car driver explained that the system passengers have to rate their experience constantly means drivers “have to live in fear of losing their jobs.”

Essentially, what this means is that working for a computer algorithm might have its downsides, in that its main objective is for compliance and stability, treating individual drivers as nodes in a network—a cybernetic approach to labour.

And some Uber drivers in France are fed up with it. Annoyed by yet another cut to Uber rates in Paris, a group of drivers has built their own Uber-like app, called VTC Cab. “Unlike Uber, VTC Cab also allows users to order rides in advance and, crucially, does not collect commissions from its drivers, operating instead as a non-profit association with a membership fee,” read a story in The Verge. The app’s founder reasoned it this way: “We want to establish and regain our rights over Uber… They are a technology company which has no connection with the world of transportation. So they treat human beings like a number—you know, like a figure on a computer. And being a number, as a driver, is a very bad feeling.”

All of which to say the taxi drivers protesting in Toronto are not focusing their energy correctly. Rather than try to convince the mayor, city councillors, or the public that Uber is no good, their real job instead ought to be to target Uber drivers—not by smashing their windows, but by convincing them that being a cabbie, ruled by humans and not computer code, is a much nicer way to earn a living. If it truly isn’t, then not only will cab drivers’ wallets get thinner, but so will their ranks. And that will be the end of that.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.