First the cars: I ride in countless Priuses, one Ford C-Max, one Escalade (“I love to drive,” says my happy Uber driver, whose gas mileage must be costing more than she is making) and one fully electric Nissan Leaf.
I am so fascinated by this car, I pepper my driver with questions about it from the moment I get in. The Leaf is completely silent and goes 107 miles on a single charge* (heavy cargo and driving up steep long inclines can reduce the range, as can using the AC, or even the drag of keeping the windows cracked). Most people don’t require anything more than that for a daily commute, and owners tend to charge up overnight at home; but if you’re on the road, and there aren’t any charging stations nearby, there is an app which Leaf drivers can use and sign up for. A professional charging station (500 volts) will take the Leaf about a ½ hr to “fill up.” If there are none close, you can go to the houses of people who sign up to the app and plug in there. This will take considerably longer and I can already see the romantic comedy based on this premise, but it will get you home in a (long) pinch. Another downside is that the battery needs replacing about every 5 years (expensive). And if you’re getting your electricity from a coal-fired plant, you aren’t really saving the environment much, but let’s hope that will be changing. I still loved this car.
Uber drivers all use GPS of course, which is now paired with another app Google has bought, Waze. Like Uber, this is a community-based app where drivers notify each other about congestion. GPS speaks to the drivers – usually in English, but on one ride, I heard Korean GPS.
And now for the drivers.
As you’d expect in LA, I encounter the usual compliment of actors and actresses – in one case, I had two Uber drivers who had just wrapped the same Western in Arizona but had never met. One of them was the roper, the other played a minor role (I learn Arizona is the capital of Western movies). I met a former Army air traffic controller, some real estate agents, a graphic designer, a hair dresser and a few tech start-up guys. Part-time drivers were in general the happiest. They liked setting their own hours, often deciding to pick up a couple of bucks when their other business was slow.
The full-time drivers tended to be older and were the most harried. Uber was less of a choice for them than a necessity, sometimes driving as long as 18 hrs (and suffering the expected back problems). And here are some of the other things I learned about driving for Uber:
Your car can’t be older than 2011. There are certain standards to be maintained. Hygiene is not one of them, yet I found, with only one mildly ratty exception, that the interior of all Ubers I used were immaculate – far cleaner than my own car when I lived in LA. I spoke to one driver about it and he said, “Well, it’s as if you’re inviting someone into your home. You want it to look nice.” A certain amount of pride among these drivers which you’d never see in a New York fleet taxi.
And here are some other rules. Uber drivers are not allowed to know your destination until you’re already in the car. This is to protect against discrimination, which is good for the passenger - but not always so good for the driver. For example, I spoke to many drivers who’d found themselves unexpectedly driving over 100 miles, in one case as far as San Diego (that’s a two hour drive from LA depending, in heavy freeway traffic). The driver can refuse, but three refusals result in a fine. And any driver who goes that distance has to pay out of their own pocket to return. Whenever I used an Uber to go 10 miles or more into the hills, I always added an extra tip to compensate the driver for this. I also met one homeless driver. If she slept in her car, I didn’t notice it, but I tipped her generously. Although Uber drivers’ latest contract allows for extra tipping, most drivers I met weren’t aware of it.
Uber offers incentives. If you drive above a certain number of hours, you’re eligible for a higher pay rate. And driving at night is more lucrative, but slightly riskier for the car. Night drivers, catering to the partying crowd, tend to supply barf bags in the back seat pocket.
I was amazed at how many Uber drivers I met were women. Most drive during the day, but some at night. Another company called Chariot, is pioneering a service in Boston by and for women. I’ll be curious to see how it does.
*Disclaimer: this is from a personal conversation with one Leaf owner and does not represent any claims by Nissan.