uber downfall

The major Uber downfall and the downfall of the sharing economy in general

Uber has changed my life. I use the app to get around town, drink more wine and generally just make my life easier. Uber isn’t the only sharing economy app I’ve utilised. Services like Air BnB have become my first point of call before I hit Google. In the US the sharing economy is booming. Their are apps that allow you to hunt down someone to fetch your lunch, do your laundry and even an app that lets you hire hot men to hang out at a party with you (really!).

A few months ago my friend Tam pointed me in the direction of a series of podcasts called Instaserfs. The podcast series highlights the rise of the sharing economy but from the view of the suppliers – the Uber drivers, the guys fetching your lunch and the men and women who have chosen to provide services via the smartphone applications. Over 3 episodes Andrew Callaway embarks on being a “partner” of the various sharing economy apps. He moonlights as an Uber driver (actually competitor apps as Uber didn’t want to be part of this series) and a host of other “partners”. He documents his experience and it is a giant eye opener. These guys and girls commit to major companies without a contract in place and experience as much frustration with the technology as we tend to have.

Take a listen to the Instaserfs series:


They also barely make minimum wage while working themselves to death.

My major takeaway from the Instaserfs podcast series was that there is a downfall to apps like Uber. The kink in the chain they try to fix (the human element) is the very kink in their own product chain.

This past weekend I headed to the Mumford & Sons concert. My friend, brother and I made the call to Uber from Bryanston to Pretoria. The ride there wasn’t a problem. We got the driver to drop us a distance from the venue (The Voortrekker Monument) and we hiked on up to the concert.

uber downfall

Towards the end of the band’s set the heavens opened and the rain began to bucket down. We made a decision to forgo the final two songs and rather head to the entrance to miss the crowds and the millions of Uber requests that would likely follow. Utilising the app in the beginning was difficult as we were trying to save phones from the rain (turns out the so called waterproof Sony Xperia Z2’s touchscreen does not work in pouring rain) and the South African cellphone signal was dismissal. However, I eventually was able to hail an Uber Black. Our driver Gerry was 20 minutes away. I phoned him the moment I received a pick up notification to notify him that we were at the venue and would find him. I also asked him to phone me when he was nearby so we could search for him in what would likely be crazy traffic. He confirmed he would.

When he was 5 minutes away and, according to the map, sitting in the traffic right near the entrance, I rang him to let him know we would find him. He cut my call. I rang again. He cut off my call. In fact, as we searched for Gerry I phoned him 12 times and all 12 times my call was cut. Running through the rain we found his BMW and ran over to climb in. At which point he promptly locked the doors. I knocked on his window and he shook his head. Finally he wound down his window and announced that someone else had phoned him so he was picking them up rather. I was somewhat confused, he was on my app scheduled to pick US up? At which point he cancelled the ride request on his side. He then tried to negotiate with us asking if he could check where the other customer wanted to go to see which one would make him more money. I wasn’t interested in playing that game.

uber downfall

Here’s what happened:

Gerry had given his personal number to a previous customer and told them to phone him direct when they needed a lift. This is a common practice of Uber drivers around the world (a San Francisco driver offered me a similar service when I was there). Once you climb into the vehicle the driver gets you to request a ride and they pick you up. It’s a guaranteed driving job for them. However, if the car is owned by another party (which does often happen) and the driver is contracted to them, they have to justify the time spent in traffic getting to a venue like that of a busy concert where it takes 20 minutes to get through traffic. So it makes sense that Gerry would indicate he was on route to pick up an app user (me) when he was actually planning on fetching someone else.

Because of Gerry’s involvement in the Uber process we ended up stuck in the rush of concert goers all on their phones trying to book Ubers. The signal was non-existant and the Ubers all in use. Our altercation with Gerry occurred at ten to 11 (after waiting for him to arrive for 20 minutes). We were finally able to get another Uber at 12:30. It meant standing in the piss pouring rain and watching our smartphone batteries drained. We rang a host of other cab companies in the interim but none were willing to send cabs to the venue – the traffic to get there didn’t justify the R500 or so they’d get to take us home. Our eventual driver took us home on surge pricing and pocketed a cool R1000 (lucky guy). Gerry possibly lost out.

Instaserfs explains the problem.

uber downfall

Those podcasts I mentioned above highlight why things like this happen. It explains why the very partners of these apps will rather add some human involvement to ensure a guaranteed amount rather than risk 30 minutes in traffic for a 10 minute minimum ride. Even though we had entered our final location and the driver could see the distance, Gerry felt better driving someone he had a personal relationship with and using us as the excuse.

Can I complain to Uber? I will. Will it stop the humans abuse the app to better finance their pockets? Definitely not.

So will the sharing economy ever really be a success? Or will the human element have the same effect as the traditional businesses and services they aim to improve on? 

I'd love to chat to you some more.


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