Perspectives from the Driver’s Seat of Uber (Part 2.5 of 3)
NOTE: If you are looking for an abridged version written by a professional, see Scott Kirsner’s story on boston.com. For the rest of you…
It was nearly 11pm as I neared Boston on I-93 south at the end of a 2-hour drive from Hanover, NH – I had been speaking at my beloved alma mater, Dartmouth College – and I hit the “go online” button just to see if something might pop up. I was, after all, growing accustomed to being paid to drive anywhere within the Greater Boston area. My UberPhone remained silent… until, that is, I was less than 2 minutes from our apartment downtown. Curiosity on what it was like to drive at night versus the day got the best of me. I broke my self-imposed rule of not “Ubering just to Uber” and accepted the fare.
First I picked up Caden and two work associates from a restaurant in Bay Village – Caden texted he was heading to Inman Square in Cambridge. One of the riders startled me by opening the passenger front door to sit next to me – hey bud, this isn’t Lyft!! My personal stuff was jammed in the front seat so I quickly scooped it all up and dashed around to the back of the Jeep and stowed everything in the trunk area. Before heading to Inman, it turned out the out-of-town guests needed to go to the Marriott Back Bay first. Oh sh*t. I had Inman in my GPS already but the Marriott stop was an unexpected curve ball for my pea-sized livery brain. Even though I’ve been there a million times, I was disoriented coming out of the one-way streets of Bay Village. It’s harder than you might think to quickly determine which direction to start driving while passengers are expecting you to hit the gas immediately. And fiddling with a GPS before moving for a place so close is generally not a confidence booster. My assumption was that I would obviously emerge onto a street or block that I knew well. And thankfully I did. The funny thing is that these guys didn’t care about my inner turmoil, not even in the slightest. In fact, they ignored me – not in a rude way, just in a matter-of-fact manner. I gathered they were in health care or biotech and clearly entering a new market – there was a lot at stake. It was all very serious. I got it. While I half expected them to include me in the conversation (dudes, I used to be in healthcare too!), they didn’t. I think they gave me a 4.
With the drop in Inman complete and my GPS pointed back to home, Uber alerted me to pick up Daisy at King’s Lanes in Back Bay. I accepted. No less than five 20-somethings squeezed into the car as though they were playing that old telephone booth game. All HBS students heading back to HBS. They talked about exotic travel, recent surfing experiences, a job at McKinsey, and other 1% of the 1% topics. A couple of foreign accents, all happy faces, bright future opportunities nearly guaranteed, the world clearly in their hands. They were cordial to me when I chirped in about my recent surfing experiences – they even paused, in silence, momentarily to consider my low value-add comment before going back to the HBS-only-no-Uber-drivers-please conversation. For some reason I think Daisy gave me a 4 too. Drop off complete, GPS repointed downtown to go home.
Another Uber alert came in to pick up Emma only 7 minutes away – but towards Jamaica Plain, not towards home. By now it was midnight. I took it anyway. Little did I know that this would be the ride to be remembered. Two women, absolutely hammered; one of them – not Emma – nearly incoherent. I entered the address they gave me… deep in Somerville… and remained quiet as they argued back and forth about something I couldn’t really follow (maybe this is why cabbies use their phones so much nowadays… it’s hard not to listen to what is being said by your passengers!) Then it got very quiet. A half a minute later I heard a slurping sound…then more slurping sounds, tongues and lips clearing mashing together. Then a little panting, ever so subtle. A moan. Silence. Another moan. Then another. By now I’m nervously and awkwardly – because I don’t ever do this – tapping my right hand on the dash, likely sporting an expression similar to Chevy Chase’s as he drives cross country in National Lampoon’s Vacation. To these two fine young ladies, I wasn’t even there. More so than any of my previous rides, my presence simply didn’t matter. I did everything possible not to look in the rearview mirror – I admit that was challenging. I considered shifting it so my view was of the car ceiling, but realized that would demonstrate my awareness of the steamy situation that was building less than 36 inches behind my balding scalp.
After a few minutes – by now I had quite literally broken out in a sweat – something in the air shifted. Between slurps and quiet gasps, they suddenly got into a minor tussle about something I never grasped, and separated to opposite sides of the Jeep. They incoherently carried on with their argument. I finally mustered the guts to not only look in the mirror but to flip around and ask if everything was ok. They stopped, looked at each other, giggled and laughed, and one finally uttered, “Sure, just two lesbians hooking up in the back of your car, everything is great!”
And like magic, the awkwardness dissipated and for the first time that evening I became a human being again. I was part of the conversation. We shared a lot of laughs about the unlikely situation (for me) for the next 15 minutes.
As we approached their apartment in Somerville, one of them inquired with a valiant attempt at sounding sober if she could be our babysitter. She added: “I know this was a rough start for a job interview”. I feel like I should have gotten a 5, but maybe in the morning they were so horrified they gave me a 4. I can’t be sure.
I finished the night with a boy/girl “couple” that brought me to the North End. More smooches. Less slurping. They were a new pair, it seemed. Again, I was invisible. Not part of the conversation. I’m sure they gave me a 4. You can feel a 4, versus a 5.
Here’s the mystery, at least to me. I delivered the most personal and intentionally solid customer service I knew how, as I have on every one of my 75 Uber rides. And yet, when the scores started coming in from that particular night, I got absolutely pummeled.Pummeled, again, to any Uber Driver who wants to remain part of the system, is a 4, and I really did get 4’s. I slid from a solid 4.93 overall rating prior to that evening to a less exciting 4.72 overnight. My score for that week was only 4.33. Scaling that 4.33 over any small period of time means I’m not just an XBurrito CEO but also an XUberX driver.
I decided to change things up a bit…
MY SECRET WEAPON: THE TESLA
Look, I love my Jeep Wrangler. But when I left Boloco in October, I was in a bit of a crisis mode. For many reasons, all unplanned, I ended up financing a Tesla Model S. It arrived in late December and up until my night ride I had only used the Wrangler. But with too many 4’s now on my Uber resume, I decided to try out my secret weapon. Would it make a difference? I wondered.
Turns out it did. A world of difference. Not just in my ratings – I’ve since received mostly 5’s, thankfully, getting my score back up to a solid 4.89 – but in my overall interaction with my Uber guests. In the Tesla, we were “equals” in conversation – rarely the case when driving the Jeep. People’s curiosity couldn’t often be contained. A couple of riders took photos as they exited the vehicle, or even of the Tesla GPS screen (the size of 2 laptop screens) while we drove. A few tweeted. One texted her boyfriend that she was in an Uber Tesla and how cool it was, but she accidentally texted all of it to me (she realized as the ride was coming to an end and told me to disregard when I saw it… of course I did no such thing).
Caption: Senator Elizabeth Warren was my most famous passenger.
My Tesla Uber riders and I usually spoke to each other as human beings. As though a spell had been cast, I took back the position of having been the CEO and co-founder of Boloco simply doing a side gig while I searched for my next “big” thing. And while I was far more comfortable, personally, in those situations, it occurred to me how telling it is that a fancy, unique, all-electric sports sedan (that, yes, is SO damn cool and fun to drive) so quickly changes the quality of interaction between strangers. I don’t exclude myself from this phenomenon, and don’t look down on any of my riders for it (remember, I enjoyed these conversations and people immensely!). But it’s human nature, I suppose, to make judgments quickly based on material items and act accordingly. In this particular instance no harm was done – a first world problem if ever there was one. But still quite a contrast that I will not forget anytime soon.
I’m still a much more frequent Uber rider than I am a driver. I’ve taken over 175 rides and spent nearly $6,000 in the past two years on UberX and UberBlack services.
As a rider, I will continue to ask every driver “how’s Uber?” Had I not asked that simple question, with genuine interest, to Shabih from Chicago back in early October, I would have missed out on meeting an incredibly diverse and fascinating group of people – scientists, teachers, social workers, entrepreneurs, job seekers, students, moms, partiers, lesbians, hotel managers, bartenders, tourists, stuffy people, fun people, dreamers and big thinkers – who have made my life far richer as a result. I’m in touch with at least a dozen of them on various projects, including a couple of babysitter candidates! Who would have thought… certainly not me.
My Uber story ends here – I’ll be retiring my livery driver gloves soon. In the next few days, however, for the few diehards here, I’ll share my lessons learned in Part 3 of 3.