When Uber came to Norway just before Christmas, I was overjoyed. But it got a lukewarm reception in the Norwegian press and among politicians, as most new things in Norway get.
I don't want Uber to give up on Norway — and I don't think it ever will — so I embedded myself as a driver for Uber Pop (the European version of UberX) for a week to see what it's really all about.
So in the previous week, I have been an Uber driver at night, and I will tell everything I learned, good and bad.
First, some background
• Uber was founded in 2009 and has in six years gotten to a $41 billion valuation, making it perhaps the fastest-growing company in world history. If it was a publicly traded company in Norway, it would be the second-most valuable
• The company started as a map on a smartphone, which connected a driver with a passenger based on GPS. It still really is that, with a very clever infrastructure in the back end.
• There are about 150,000 drivers worldwide, in several different categories. In Norway, this is divided into two categories; luxury cars with private driver-permit (Uber Black) and newer private cars without a permit (Uber Pop).
• Uber Black, typically a Mercedes S-class limousine edition, costs the same or less than the taxi to ride. The cost of a ride on an UberPop costs about half that of a normal taxi ride. At night or on the weekend it's cheaper compared to taxies. The rates don't change by time of day or day of week. A typical trip within Oslo on Uber Pop cost 10 dollars. The driver gets 80% of this.
• To be an Uber driver, you must have a valid background check from the police, a newer four-door car, and you pass an interview. This is equivalent to what is required of taxi drivers.
• Both passengers and drivers are rated after each trip on a scale from 1 to 5. If the driver gets an average of less than 4.2, he or she is called in for a meeting with Uber management and is at risk of being cut out of the service.
• Passengers who are rated poorly (under 3 is low) risk not getting a car when requesting one, as drivers can see only the address and rating of the person requesting the ride. This system ensures that people can't be assholes. In addition to the rating, the Uber app has a report feature.
• If something happens during the ride, and it is reported via the app, the local management gets an alert on their phone immediately. This ensures that drivers have a clean car, behave well and don't take inopportune routes to the destination or behave poorly.
I started the process of becoming an Uber driver just before Christmas. I contacted Chris, who is the launcher in Oslo. I explained that I wanted to document what Uber is and how it looks like from the inside. I got permission to write whatever I saw and experienced, as long as I didn't publicize or violate the privacy of any passengers. I was not allowed to take pictures or film anything with passengers in the car.
The first thing I had to do, was to contact the local police to prove I did not have a criminal record. It took three weeks to get ready and after this I had a conversation with Chris about Uber and what is expected of me as Uber Pop-driver.
The next step was to begin my so called "onboarding." In essence, this is a review of the Uber Partner app, how the ratings works, how the finances work and other practical details. I was given an iPhone with a preinstalled Uber Partner app and I signed the papers.
I was ready.
My first two days as an Uber driver, I actually didn't have time to drive at all. This is a pretty nice way to illustrate what Uber Pop really is. It is not a job. It is not a taxi. It is car sharing that literally everyone can do, as long as they have a newer four-door car and spotless criminal record.
Anyone with an Uber Partner app can take on passengers. Normally an Uber Pop-driver works no more than maybe 10 hours a week and can still expect to earn substantial money in addition to a regular income. This is a nice added income for a student or someone with an early-stage startup. In Oslo, an Uber Pop driver makes about $25 in hour on average.
When it comes to the best car for the job, the same rules apply as for the rest of the people on the road. You must be smart. I had a Prius plugin hybrid, and with the low consumption, it's a natural choice. This really is the perfect Uber car. If I were to do this long term, I would likely use a Tesla Model S. It's subsidized in Norway and you can charge for free. That really is the perfect Uber Pop-car.
It almost felt like I was headed to a blind date as I turned the app on for the first time. I pressed "go online" and waited. I did not quite know what to expect. After about 7 minutes the phone started to beep and a map with the destination appeared in the center of the screen. I automatically got GPS coordinates and after a few minutes the first passenger was in the backseat. I had already decided that I should not talk to the passenger, unless they engaged me first — 95% did, and most of the questions was about Uber.
The first trip cost less than $10, about double the price of a bus ticket and half that of a normal taxi ride. Not bad.
After the first trip was done, the app started beeping almost immediately and I was on my way to the next destination. I worked about three hours on the first day, and I made about $130. Everyone was nice. The only reason I did not earn more was that the iPhone I got from Uber had a horribly weak battery. I installed Uber Partner app on my Samsung phone the day afterwards and it worked perfectly.
It soon felt normal to drive people around. I tried working most hours of the day, and the demand was steady. Of course the demand is highest when the fewest people want to drive other people around, Saturday night. But it's fairly steady all week.
I do like to drive around like this. It almost feels like meditation. Makes me calm. The income was really just a bonus.
As the number of trips increased, I noticed that the conversation I had with the passengers were quite similar. They were mostly practical questions about Uber. Which is why I'm writing this.
After three half-days as a driver, 26 rides, 411 dollars earned, and meeting many interesting people, I only really have a single negative thing to say about the experience. It's how society treat drivers. Come to think of it, it occurred to me that taxi drivers are low on the social totem pole, which I think is terrible. I hope that Uber will help people open up their cars more and maybe remove this stigma. Because it's car-sharing, not a taxi service.
In Helsinki, Finland, the idea is to be all car-sharing by 2025, so this might become a reality.
On the one hand there are those who want to have a little bit of extra income, and on the other hand, there are all those people going from A to B. The taxi system, with permits and quotas, create a system without any real competition on price. Uber is really the perfect free-market system.
In addition to the economic benefits, it is remarkable how safe people say they feel in an Uber.
One passenger I had had a particularly interesting observation. She was a blonde, young, attractive girl. She said that taking taxis was a nightmare. She claimed to have experienced dozens of negative situations in taxis, where she had no way to alert anyone. She had been using Uber for the last year and he said that not a single time had she felt unsafe.
I've heard similar stories from other women.
There is a good reason why Uber does not have a problem with harassment, while taxis do. The reason is the app. After each trip both the passenger and the driver gets rated. If the car is dirty, smells, or should the passenger feel harassed, you can rate the driver the moment you step out of the car. Should something dramatic happen, and you take advantage of the opportunity to send a message directly to Uber, a person in management will receive SMS about this at the moment you send the message. This creates a very safe system, and is in my view the reason why there's been almost zero incidents with 150,000 drivers.
This system is far better than any permit system and is the secret sauce behind the great experience that is Uber.
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