Uber uses various prompts and rewards to persuade its drivers to keep working and operate in underserved areas, fuelling revenue growth and shortening waiting times for customers. However, it runs the risk of angering or alienating drivers - potentially shunting them towards arch-rival Lyft.
Relying on independent contractors rather than employees lowers Uber's labour costs, but limits the ride-hailing platform's control over its drivers. That can "wreak havoc on a service whose goal is to seamlessly transport passengers whenever and wherever they want", according to the New York Times. Therefore, Uber has used graphics, badges and other virtual tools and incentives to squeeze more hours out of its drivers and shepherd them towards neighbourhoods where they're needed.
Uber makes it simple for drivers to set their own goals by displaying information about their trips, sessions, earnings and passenger ratings in the Uber app. It also exploits people's attachment to goals: when a driver attempts to log off, Uber informs them they're only $10 short of a certain amount - such as their takings in a previous session - and encourages them to keep going and reach that sum. Those messages sometimes include a graphic of an engine gauge, with its needle just shy of a dollar sign.
Local managers send texts, emails and in-app alerts to push drivers towards areas of high demand, and have even pretended to be women to bolster their influence. One pop-up asks drivers whether they would like to go to an area with a "higher chance" of finding passengers, and includes a graphic that looks like the infamous 'surge' icon, without the promise of higher profits.
Moreover, after Uber realised that new drivers who completed at least 25 trips were much less likely to quit the service, it began sending encouraging messages to drivers to keep them motivated to reach that mark. The company also rewards drivers with colourful, virtual badges for achievements such as 'Excellent Service' and 'Entertaining Drive'.
Some of Uber's 'nudges' have been too effective. The Forward Dispatch feature, which reduces idle time for drivers by offering them another trip before they complete their current one, isn't unlike Netflix's 'autoplay' feature, which plays the next episode of a TV series unless commanded otherwise. After drivers reported struggling to even take a bathroom break, Uber introduced a pause button. However, the feature turns on every time a driver accepts a ride, in order to capitalise on 'status quo bias' or people's lazy preference for the default.
These prompts and nudges may seem harmless, but they provide move evidence of Uber's hunger for growth at any cost. The benefits, protections and set wages of conventional employment are the biggest casualties. Its obsession is arguably to blame for its recent scandals, which include claims of rife sexism in the workplace, reports of software being used to evade regulation, accusations of strike-breaking during the US travel ban, and CEO Travis Kalanick arguing over falling fares with a driver.
Although Uber drivers have the freedom to choose their own hours, "we want you to do as much work as there is to do", the company's research director said. And drivers claim the app sends them to areas where waiting times are high, rather than areas of high demand, indicating their bottom lines are of secondary concern.
One positive is that Uber is working on a feature allowing drivers to enter an address where they need to be at a certain time, such as their children's school at pick-up time. The app will then favour rides that send them in the right direction. However, that may not be enough to placate drivers who grow tired of being treated like assets rather than people.
Rival service Lyft experimented with informing drivers of how much money they left on the table by working during quieter periods of the weeks - taking advantage of people's aversion to losses - it decided the initiative was too manipulative. Lyft regularly trumpets its superior driver satisfaction and less Machiavellian tactics, which could become a major draw if Uber continues down its current road.