Last week, the resignation of Travis Kalanick as CEO of Uber sent shockwaves through the tech industry. It stemmed from the culmination of almost six months of nonstop scandals, controversies, and negative headlines for the $69 billion company. Some Uber employees responded by posting long messages on Facebook praising Kalanick, or circulating petitions to get him reinstated. But less attention was paid to the reactions of the workers who comprise the backbone of Uber’s service: the drivers.
Over the weekend, The Verge interviewed nearly a dozen drivers in six different cities in the US and UK to gauge their reactions to the upheaval at the ride-hail company. Most were unconcerned with the high-level corporate intrigue, focused instead on the day-to-day hustle of driving in today’s “gig economy.” They praised some of the recent changes at the company that they perceived to be pro-driver — in-app tipping! — but also had many of the familiar criticisms Uber drivers have been making for years now: low fares, high commission, and the struggle to make a living as a freelance worker in today’s economy. The most striking thing about the way drivers talk about Uber is how detached they are from the company’s scandals. Most don’t care about whatever scandal is roiling management, and stand ready to jump to another app at a moment’s notice.
Zbigniew, an Uber driver in London, said he wasn’t aware that Kalanick had been fired: “Fired from where?” Md Liaquat Ali, who drives in New York City, said he heard it from his wife. “The CEO resigned,” Ali said matter-of-factly. “But I don’t know why.” Ronald, an Uber driver in Long Beach, California, was more dismissive when asked for his opinion about the latest turmoil at Uber. “I don’t know anything about him, and I don’t really care.”
He added, “I just want to get paid to do my job. I don’t give a damn about that. Might sound cold but that’s just the way.”
Uber has long had a tumultuous relationship with its drivers. Multiple lawsuits have been brought against Uber challenging their classification as independent contractors. Last year, Uber agreed to settle a class action lawsuit with drivers for $100 million, but that was later rejected by a judge as an insufficient amount. Earlier this year, Uber was fined $20 million by the Federal Trade Commission for misleading drivers about earnings. Uber recently launched an effort entitled “180 Days of Change” aimed at improving outreach to drivers.
While there was plenty of apathy toward Kalanick’s ouster among drivers, it wasn’t uniform. Some had a more nuanced take on what his departure will mean for them and the wider tech industry. Noemi Torres, an Uber Black driver in Los Angeles, praised Kalanick as someone whose vision not only created Uber, but in her opinion many of the on-demand companies that have followed in Uber’s path. That said, she said his forced resignation could be a sign of positive changes to come. “In the end, Uber's investors were smart to fire Travis and I’m surprised it took them this long to do it,” she said. “It’s important to rebuild Uber's image to the public.”
Kalanick’s resignation came in the wake of Uber’s most serious scandal: allegations from a former engineer of rampant sexism, harassment, and misogyny, as well as a corporate system that protected offending male employees from accountability. A four-month investigation found hundreds of additional cases and resulted in the termination of over 20 employees. Torres said she was surprised to see a high-level executive go down for problems that she considers to be endemic in most industries.
“I'm glad that commonly accepted male chauvinistic behavior is being put on check for a change,” she said. “It is refreshing to see that [and] it seems we now have a voice that matters.”
She said she hopes the new CEO will listen to drivers and adapt their suggestions into the app, such as “a live customer service team available 24 hours a day... health benefits, a 401K, and something to leave our children. I don't think Travis sees it that way, but a more traditional leadership would.”
Some drivers expressed fear for Uber’s future with Kalanick absent from the mix. “I’m scared, he left the job,” said Zahid Hasan, an Uber driver in New York City. “Uber is his son. Without the father, how will the child survive?”
But the reactions from Torres and Hasan were outliers among the drivers we spoke with. Most said they couldn’t be bothered to follow the news about Kalanick and Uber, preferring instead to hammer on complaints about the job or tout the flexibility it affords them. They were more concerned about issues like daily traffic jams or, in Chicago for instance, a recent (and horrific) incident in which a teenage girl murdered her Uber driver with a machete. In comparison, some CEO’s resignation barely rises to the surface, even if he happened to be the guy in charge of the app they drive for.
While steering his Toyota RAV 4 over the pockmarked streets of Brooklyn, Md Liaquat Ali speculated that Kalanick’s departure could lead to Uber’s collapse — a possibility that could pave the way for other, more driver-friendly apps to take its place.
“Uber actually, this is not my favorite company,” Ali said. “They take too much from the drivers, like 35 percent [commission]. So I like Juno and Gett more than I like Uber and Lyft. Lyft is a little bit better than Uber, but they’re the same. They take too much money from the driver.” (Juno was recently acquired by Gett, and subsequently eliminated its equity sharing program with drivers. Some drivers recently filed a lawsuit contesting the move.)
The withering news cycle has certainly taken its toll on Uber. Uber’s US market share fell from 84 percent at the beginning of this year to 77 percent at the end of May, according to research firm Second Measure. Meanwhile, Lyft’s bookings were up 135 percent year over year in April, according to PYMNTS.com. Customer satisfaction with Uber is down, too. Nationwide, 10 percent fewer users rank Uber the best ride-hailing app today as compared to September 2016, according to Autolist.com. By contrast, the percentage of users that are “Very Satisfied” with Lyft’s service has risen from 25 percent to 37 percent as compared to September 2016; by contrast, Uber’s percentage has remained flat at 18 percent.
The constant negativity sometimes trickles down into the conversations Uber drivers have with their passengers. “That’s more of a corporate thing,” said one driver. “But it affects us, because the passengers are aware that there’s been problems.”
Zbigniew, the London driver, said he preferred driving for Uber over minicabs because the customers and the money were so much better. “If tomorrow I wake up and Uber doesn’t exist, I’m not going back to the [minicab] office. Because I try two office, three office, it was shit,” he said. “Unbelievable.”
Zbigniew, a Polish immigrant who drove a Volkswagen Passat, didn’t have much to say on the topic of Uber’s controversial decision to classify its drivers as independent contractors, making them ineligible for most of the benefits enjoyed by salaried employees. But other drivers were more bullish on the subject. “They set themselves up as a technology platform so they don’t even consider themselves to be a transportation company,” said one driver, “which is such a loophole.”
Torres, the Uber Black driver from LA, is involved with a class action lawsuit brought by drivers against Uber challenging their classification as independent contractors. “Drivers need better conditions, better treatment, and, also, we need a piece of the pie we helped make, especially those of us who have tenure and loyalty,” she said.
For others, it was the little things, like the recent addition of tipping in Uber’s app, that earned their approval. “I’ve driven for a lot of different companies, and this is the only company I’ve driven for where people don’t tip you,” said Ronald, the driver in Long Beach. “And that’s a big part of my income are the tips. So I’m really looking forward to that.”
Another scandal that likely contributed to Kalanick’s ouster was a lawsuit alleging that Uber stole the technology that powers its self-driving cars from Waymo, a spinoff of Google. But despite the ongoing lawsuit and recent firing of the top engineer in charge of Uber’s autonomous driving program, many drivers were resigned to their fate of obsolescence. “I believe the fact that they care less about drivers issues or concerns is a testament to their preferring driverless vehicles,” Torres said. “I believe driving is a temporary gig, not a permanent one. Driverless cars are an inevitable future.”
For older drivers like Ronald, the idea of a driverless Uber was both scary and slightly ludicrous. “Possibly someday, if it becomes a popular mode of transportation and everybody’s doing it, maybe I would consider it,” he said. “But right now you couldn’t pay me to get in a car that drives itself, because I would be afraid. Simple as that. I’m 70 years old. By the time they do that, I’ll be too old to drive.”
As Uber scrambles to repair its damaged reputation and rebuild itself in the wake of a mass exodus of employees and top-level executives, drivers say they are content to keep their eyes on the road and ignore the questions and speculation swirling around the company. They could easily compartmentalize the problems plaguing the company, because none of them were technically employees of Uber. Many also drove for other apps and expressed no strong feelings of loyalty toward Uber. After all, it was just another faceless tech company that makes a pretty useful app. As long as their phones kept pinging with fares and their back seats were always occupied with happy passengers, nothing could really steer them off course. For now, at least.
“We are birds — you know birds?” said Mutwali, a particularly philosophical Uber driver who wore fingerless gloves while steering his Toyota Camry through Brooklyn. “The birds jump from tree to tree, until he finds a good tree. Then he stays. That’s it.”
Additional reporting by Dani Deahl, Megan Farokhmanesh, Zainab Hasnain, Adi Robertson, and Vlad Savov