Is Uber’s ‘surge’ pricing genuine? Study says drivers may be gaming the system

Research from Warwick Business School reveals that Uber drivers may be gaming the system and even going offline en masse to force ‘surge’ pricing, a problem that stems from lack of transparency and human connection at Uber.

In an extensive study, researchers found that drivers were finding ways to trick the algorithms that Uber uses to control them to cancel fairs they didn’t want and to avoid the unpopular UberPOOL – where drivers have to take multiple passengers who are heading in the same direction. The main hypothesis remains that drivers may be acting out of feeling disenfranchised in a faceless organisation.

Drivers also organise mass ‘switch-offs’ so the lack of drivers in a certain area causes surge pricing where Uber can charge passengers more because of the high demand of customers but little supply of drivers, giving drivers a bigger slice too.

The ride-hailing app, which operates in 570 cities worldwide and is valued at $68 billion, has been plagued by controversy about its questionable management practices.

Now a new study by Mareike Möhlmann and Ola Henfridsson, of Warwick Business School, and Lior Zalmanson, of New York University, has unearthed details on how Uber drivers are fighting back against the “algorithmic management” used by the company.

“Uber uses software algorithms for oversight, governance and to control drivers, who are tracked and their performance constantly evaluated. In response, drivers have developed practices to regain control, even gaming the system. It shows that ‘algorithmic management’ that Uber uses may not only be ethically questionable but may also hurt the company itself,” Dr Moehlmann said.

The researchers interviewed drivers in New York and London and analysed 1,012 blogs on the Uberpeople platform and found a mass deactivation organised.

On the platform, Driver A said: “Guys, stay logged off until surge.” Driver B said: “Uber will find out if people are manipulating the system.” Driver A added: “They already know cos (sic) it happens every week. Deactivation en masse coming soon. Watch this space.”

Drivers also either accept the first passenger on UberPOOL then log off, or just ignore requests, so they don’t have to make a detour to pick anybody else up, Professor Henfridsson added. “They then still pocket the 30 per cent commission for UberPOOL, rather than the usual 10 per cent.” And despite it being part of the agreement drivers ignored UberPOOL requests.

Driver A said: “After about (two to three) days of ignoring them, you will not receive anymore. I have not received an uberpoop (sic) request in months. I guess uber thinks they are punishing me by not sending me any more… poor me. LOL.”

“There are real tensions between drivers’ need for autonomy and a platform programmed to be always in control,”Professor Henridsson explained. “Uber’s algorithmic management system may even be counterproductive as drivers try to break free of it. Indeed we found most also operated alternative ride-hailing platforms such as Lyft, Juno, and Gett, using whoever provides a ride first.”

Under constant surveillance through their phones and customer reviews, drivers’ behaviour is ranked automatically and any anomalies reported for further review, with automatic bans for not obeying orders or low grades. Drivers receive different commission rates and bonus targets, being left in the dark as to how it is all calculated. Plus, drivers believe they are not given rides when they near reaching a bonus.

The compensation for UberPOOL, which drivers have to agree to do or be banned, is even more complex. Drivers are forced to accept different passengers on the same ride, even though it is not economically beneficial to do so.

“The drivers have the feeling of working for a system rather than a company, and have little, if any interaction with an actual Uber employee,” said Dr Lior Zalmanson. “This creates tension and resentment, especially when drivers can only email to resolve problems. Uber’s strategy is not at all transparent, drivers do not know how decisions are made or even how jobs are allocated and this creates negative feelings towards the company. So they fight back and have found ways to use the system to their advantage.”

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for from 2016 to 2018.

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