Uber is on the defensive after the New York Times reported that it manipulates drivers using techniques from behavioral science in order to reduce costs and increase corporate growth. The company did not refute that it uses psychological incentives, but instead focused its response on a claim in the April 2 article that “faster pickup times for riders require a greater percentage to be idling unpaid.”
“This is simply not true—and had the Times asked us whether it was, we would have explained the reality of what happens when Uber grows in a city: riders enjoy lower pick-up times and drivers benefit from less downtime between trips,” Uber’s director of policy research, Betsy Masiello, wrote in a blog post.
In order to avoid long wait times for customers and surge pricing (which automatically kicks in when demand for rides is higher than usual in an area), Uber has to make sure enough of its drivers are working—and does so using techniques that are sometimes ethically questionable, the New York Times said.
The article claimed that Uber “engaged in an extraordinary behind-the-scenes experiment in behavioral science to manipulate them in the service of its corporate growth—an effort whose dimensions became evident in interviews with several dozen current and former Uber officials, drivers and social scientists, as well as a review of behavioral science.”
According to the article, Uber’s tactics are similar to ones used by video game designers and have included:
- alerting drivers when they are close to reaching an earnings goal set by the app.
- rewarding drivers with in-app badges that do not necessarily translate into higher earnings.
- a feature that automatically alerts Uber drivers about their next potential fare before they drop off their current customer and can’t be turned off, only paused.
- male local managers pretending to be women when texting drivers to head to certain areas, after finding that female personas increased engagement.
Even though drivers can decide when they want to work, Uber’s techniques are potentially problematic because they can manipulate drivers into working longer hours or undesirable locations without guaranteeing higher income, while benefiting the company’s bottom line.
Furthermore, because Uber’s drivers are contractors, they lack the protections and benefits that employees get, and are therefore more vulnerable to exploitation.
Masiello writes, however, that Uber’s practices have actually resulted in less idle time for its drivers:
First, as the number of passengers and drivers using Uber grows, any individual driver is more likely to be close to a rider. This means shorter pickup times and more time spent with a paying passenger in the back of the car. In addition, new features like uberPOOL and Back-to-Back trips have meant longer trips, while incentives to drive during the busiest times and in the busiest locations help keep drivers earning for a greater share of their time online. And that should be no surprise: drivers are our customers just as much as riders. So although the Times article suggests that Uber’s interest is misaligned with drivers’, the opposite is true: it’s in our interest to ensure that drivers have a paying passenger as often as possible because they’re more likely to keep using our app to earn money. (And Uber doesn’t earn money until drivers do.)
Though other tech companies, like Lyft and Postmates, use similar tactics to get more work out of their contractors, the New York Times article comes at an especially bad time for Uber. The company has never been viewed as a paragon of good corporate practice, but its reputation has arguably reached an all-time low over the past few months after a deluge of PR crises.
These include the revelation that it used a software tool called “greyball” to prevent regulators from taking rides, the #deleteuber social media campaign, reports of rampant sexual harassment, a video of founder and CEO Travis Kalanick berating a driver who was upset about dropping fares (Kalanick later apologized and promised to seek “leadership help”) and its ongoing court battle with Waymo, which claims Uber stole trade secrets.