My Life as an Uber Driver
I became an Uber driver a few months ago. This blog is about why I decided to do it and a bit about my (so far, short) experience as an Uber driver.
Yeah yeah Uber’s rather in the shit can these days but that’s not relevant for my points and motivation for doing so. If you want to complain about Uber and its crappy behavior to female workers to cops to whatever go right ahead :-). I myself have a few things to say about their market destroying economics later.
The idea came to me about an year and a half ago.
One day I called a PickMe, Sri Lanka’s local Uber competitor, and was pleasantly surprised when it was a lady driver. I chatted with her as she drove me home (of course) .. it turned out she had been working at the local office of an international bank for 20 years, finally as a branch manager, but decided to quit as she’s also an athlete and needed time flexibility to be able to train.
She quit her job and started driving for PickMe. She said she loved the freedom it gave her in terms of being able to commit time when she needed to for her passion (athletics) and also be able to commit time to make a living in the hours she was able to.
Her only problem: “I can’t tell my father that I quit as a bank manager and I’m now a taxi driver because he’ll get a heart attack!”
Jobs defining people in Sri Lanka
This is the reality of Sri Lanka: We have a very class-oriented view of society and those who do certain jobs are considered lesser people. This is sadly true for young workers too, although its minutely changing with rich(er), international school kids working in fancy coffee shops in Colombo. When I was an undergrad in the US I worked on campus doing minimum wage jobs. My job was from midnite on Fridays and Saturdays to 8am the next day to sit in front of a building monitoring system and alert cleaning crews, maintenance and/or police if something went wrong. Others worked in cafeterias, or cleaning bathrooms or whatever.
No one looked down upon someone doing that job.
Go to a restaurant in the US and the customer and waitress/waiter have a customer/service provider relationship but its not one of “I’m better than you”. Sadly that is not the case in Sri Lanka — just go to a restaurant or any such setting and observe how many customers treat the staff.
Another example — look at all the fancy rich people who rave about how Sri Lankans are lazy to work in their factories and instead prefer to drive a TukTuk and do nothing. They’ve forgotten what freedom of movement means to people because they’ve always had it.
OK last example: go to a government or even private company office to get something done. Try going in a tie and trousers vs. normal average person clothes. In one case you’ll get greeted with “How can I help you Sir?” and the other case “What do you want?” or worse yet, just ignored until you beg them to pay attention. Do either in the US and you’ll always get “How can I help you Sir?”.
This is a very bad aspect of our society that really needs to change. The lack of respect for the bus driver or the waiter or the taxi driver causes a lack of dignity and self respect and, in my opinion, a big reason why people don’t want to take factory or construction jobs and just want desk jobs.
Challenge the norm
If ever I get a chance to go against the trend I love it. So, after talking to this lady driver I immediately decided I’m going to drive a taxi and break the norm: I’m considered as a somewhat “successful” person in Sri Lanka so if I can drive and then just make it normal then I can hopefully help break the crazy judgmental behavior of our society, one person at a time.
Give my driver a chance for more income
I have a car and a driver. Yeah this is normal in Sri Lanka .. many people have drivers here :-).
My car (and driver) sit idle for many hours each day, in particular between 8am and 1pm while the kids are in school. That brings me to the second major reason for me to become a driver: give my own driver a chance to make extra money while he’s idle. Of course he has to pay for the cost of using the vehicle but (I am thinking ~25% of the earnings) but the bulk of it is his to keep.
Uber or PickMe?
Zulfer (founder and CEO of PickMe, who I know) will not be happy with my choice (and they’re even a WSO2 customer!) but I had my (good) reasons!
Reason #1: I didn’t want to deal with cash. At that time, PickMe only accepted cash and Uber only accepted credit cards. Unfortunately by the time I got started Uber had also introduced cash .. and I think PickMe has introduced credit card payment now.
Reason #2: Uber said I can register online. Didn’t have to go to an office.
Reason #3: PickMe required (or so I believed) that I have a sticker in the car. My kids were quite amused by my new craziness but weren’t keen to have a “taxi sticker” on the family car. Yeah I agree that’s a bit of the same “looking down” behavior and I need to fix it for myself and for them. So maybe I’ll register for PickMe too.
Oh and Uber’s a WSO2 customer too (well they use our technology but don’t pay for it) — they use our CEP engine for fraud detection. I gotta be careful; I know how well you can detect fraud with our CEP engine ;-)!
So I decided to register with Uber.
Registering for Uber
Its simple: go to partners.uber.com and register. Well its not that easy — they wanted scans of my driver’s license, car registration, car insurance and police clearance. First it took me many months to do the first three and was dreading the process of getting a police clearance — you need to go to the local government rep (“grama sevaka”), get a letter from him, take that to police, fill a form, blah blah blah. The only “convenient” time that I have intersecting with my friendly neighborhood grama sevaka is Saturday mornings and I inevitably had something or was lazy on Saturday mornings. It kept getting delayed and delayed ..
One day I was taking an Uber and the driver was like “oh I can give you the phone number of someone who can get you registered without that”. I was like “great! give it to me” .. so I called the guy and then he says “well I can’t do that any more but every Thursday morning they run a training session and if you go there they take care of it all without a police clearance. So my next step was to get my lazy butt over there on a Thursday morning.
Many Thursdays went by and it didn’t happen.
In the meantime my Uber account is massively confused too. I registered with Uber (as a rider not driver) some years ago while I was traveling in the US. So it has my US (actually my google voice) number. To date my Uber app has that and the damned thing won’t let me change it. Annoying as hell because Uber drivers who try to contact me in Sri Lanka have to call my Google Voice #, which almost always goes to voice mail.
When I was registering to drive I of course was registering to drive here so needed to use my local number. The form took it and the number seems to work. However, I seem to have a confused Uber account that lets me login as a partner (what they call us drivers) with both my WSO2 email (which I used when I first registered as a customer) and personal email (which I used to register to drive with).
Worse yet, it appears that I’m authorized to be an Uber driver in the US too :-). I just might give it a shot one of these days in a friend’s car. Oh BTW Hertz has a class of vehicles you can rent which allow you to drive for Uber etc. legally. I have been tempted.
To be fair to Uber, I probably messed up and used different email addresses at different times .. but its definitely messed up (for example, I keep getting congratulatory messages for having taken the first trip!).
For payment, Uber insisted that I actually scan the cover page of the “bank book”. Duh what? I don’t ever go to a bank any more .. basically all online. I opened a new savings account (online of course) as I wanted to keep my Uber income separately, and then called the bank and got the book. Scanned and uploaded finally.
Then suddenly I got a message from Uber saying “congratulations, you’ve been approved as a driver!” Whoa, what happened to the police clearance? Apparently its really not needed — even right now my partner (which is what they call us drivers) page shows that that is MIA.
So I’m now all dressed up and ready to go.
Taking the first drive
I have to be honest. I was quite apprehensive to take the actual first plunge .. shit was about to become real. It was no longer theoretical.
Basically, disappointed as I am with myself, I was having trouble getting to being a driver for someone else. I think I got approved in like November last year but my first drive was in January this year (2017). I was demonstrating the very same behavior that I railed about at the top of this blog; such an embarrassment and duplicitous feeling.
Several times I almost took the plunge but hesitated. Plus I do have a crazy schedule and whenever I have time I try to spend it at home with my kids.
One day I had about two hours from like 5:30pm to 7:00pm to wait for my daughter to finish water polo practices. That was my window.
I drove out of the WSO2 basement parking lot and waited until I was a minute away and went online in the driver app. Within a minute, while I was driving up on Inner Flower Road (for those of you familiar with the area), I got my first hit! Oh wait, it looked like the customer was in WSO2. I had finally taken the plunge to be a driver but wasn’t ready to give both myself and some WSO2 person heart attacks in the process :-) .. so I let that one go.
Then I drove near Ladies College and waited. Voila! Less than 5 minutes later another request — this time just around the corner on Cambridge Terrace near Sampath Bank. I get there and call the customer and he says wait I’ll come there. I see an SUV pulling out of the parking lot near Lionel Wendt and it comes up behind me.
So he comes up behind me, gets out of the vehicle, looks closely at the back of my car and then walks around to the front and takes a look. Then he comes to the passenger window (which I had opened by then) and says (in Sinhalese) “El board de?” — are you learning how to drive?
Oh shit! I just remembered that my daughter is learning how to drive in my car and so we had red “L” (for learner) boards pasted next to the license plate! I’m like “Um no but my daughter is!”
Satisfied, he goes back to his vehicle and two kids (boy and girl say 10 and 14) and open the back of my Prius and start putting school backpacks and some sports stuff.
Um, I’m a bit panicked now. First drive etc. and I’m supposed to drop off the guy’s kids (presumably) at their home. So while he’s loading stuff I ask him “Sir, where do you want me to take them?”.
Yeah that’s a feature of the Uber driver app — it doesn’t tell you where the customer wants to go until you start the ride! I guess that was done to prevent discrimination (drivers refusing to drive customers lets say to “less wealthy” areas of big cities). Makes sense frankly.
So, the guy says “Thalawathugoda”. Its 5:30pm and he wants me to drive his kids like 10km — not far really. BUT at 5:30pm that drive will take at least and hour as that’s the worst traffic road in Sri Lanka right now, especially because of a major overpass being constructed to relieve traffic. I have to be back at the pool by 7:00pm. Plus I’m nervous as hell to take some unknown person’s kids as the first trip! I’ve given rides to plenty of my kids friends but this is different.
Lucky for me my car’s check engine light was on at that time. I knew why (I have one of those handy OBDII things and the lovely Torque app) — the hybrid battery is on the wonk. (The story of the hybrid battery of a Prius in Sri Lanka is another blog that I will write about one day.) I took that as my excuse and said “Sir, I’m very sorry but my check engine light just came on and I’m scared to go that far in traffic without checking it out.” Basically I lied.
Dude was not pleased but he took his kids and their stuff out of my car and I drove off. I went offline immediately.
It shook me a bit that someone would just dump their kids in some random guy’s car and say “take ’em home”. It also made me realize that this driving for someone else thing is serious business — not something to be taken lightly.
Damn. I concluded that my virgin Uber drive had to be done when I had a more open time window.
That came on Saturday, January 21st: My daughter was taking SAT subject tests and I thought I’ll give it a whirl since I had a few hours to kill. I opened my Uber customer app and saw there are bunch of cars around; and part of me felt bad that I’d be taking business away from them. So I decided to drive home instead but along the way decided to turn the driver app on.
Halfway there I got a request and I accepted it. It turned out to be a teenage girl along with her nanny/maid (yeah that’s normal in Sri Lanka; an adult lady who is there to protect the young child) who needed to be taken to a tutoring lesson from Colombo 5 to Pita Kotte:
I dropped them off successfully and voila! I am an Uber driver :-).
I have to admit I was quite nervous during that drive for some reason. I give rides to people all the time but this was different — I was getting paid to take them somewhere and that somehow felt hugely different.
[Aside: The above detail came by logging in with my US ID. The Sri Lankan one doesn’t give me this level of details. WTF is that?]
My first 10 customers
I told myself I’ll write this blog after I got to 10 customers. Clearly I’m not very active because I only got to that a few days ago! So here they are:
#1 See above; paid via credit card.
#2 Just as I was dropping them off I got another request from nearby. I managed to find the place after a bit of a going around in circles (Google maps sometimes invents roads in Sri Lanka). This was a Sri Lankan couple and an oriental lady going to meet someone. I was highly amused as they totally ignored me and were jabbering away complaining about the person they were going to meet.
Moral of that story: we often ignore the taxi driver as a non-entity but beware; the guy (or gal) is listening and processing everything you say and do!
Their drop off was somewhere in Maharagama and wanted to pay in cash! WHAT?! I hadn’t expected that and just luckily I had some change with me: the fare was Rs. 277.78.
#3 Now it was getting close to my time to get back to pick up my daughter so I started heading back but decided to stay online in the driver app. Near the parliament area I got another call .. this time to Borella. He wanted to pay by cash too! ARGH! Total was Rs. 521 — and I think I took 500 and said that’s fine because I had no change.
Well that was my first day of being an Uber driver. I had driven for about 2 hrs and earned Rs. 1265.78, of which after Uber took their 25% cut I had actually earned Rs. 949.33. Plus I got Rs. 101.05 from some special “incentive” they were running at that time to get people to drive.
I thought the day went pretty well! I got more comfortable with random folks towards the end but still didn’t really try to chat with anyone (and no one seemed to want to chat with me either).
After that I got busy with Ballerina and my other day job stuff, and didn’t get back to Uber driving until a single trip in March:
#4 This was an Italian lady who I picked up from an apt in Colombo and dropped off in Maharagama area (why that area repeatedly I have no idea). She is a hydro engineer who moved to Sri Lanka for an year to help with some rural water supply project. She couldn’t find her place as she had first got there, so I had to talk to her office folks and find the way! Eventually when I dropped her off she insisted on giving me a tip! I tried hard to say “no really its fine!” but she wouldn’t have any of it and insisted on giving me Rs. 1000 for the fare of Rs. 510.51. Not bad; a nearly 100% tip!
A week or so ago I decided I had to do it more regularly. So on the 8th of May I was going home (it was a bit late .. maybe 10pm) and decided to see whether anyone wanted a ride! I ended up taking 3 customers:
#5 This was a young couple going home to Rajagiriya after dinner at a restaurant. They wanted to stop 3 times because the dude wanted to buy cigarettes and for whatever reason he couldn’t find it at the first two places (good!). I was going to tell him off if he tried to smoke in the car but that didn’t happen luckily. Again they’re jabbering away ignoring me much to my amusement.
After that ride I thought I’ll head home and went offline. Then Uber had a brilliant option: do you want to stay online and pick up any rides that are going where I’m heading?! Hell yeah; that’s brilliant. So I marked where I was heading and started off.
I ended up getting customers #6 and #7 generally along the way home! Not bad. Total earnings for the nite: about Rs. 1,100.
Next day I was driving to office and again Uber gave me the option of selecting a destination and getting rides in that direction. I ended up taking my #8th, #9th and #10th customers on the way!
So there you go — my first ten Uber customers. I have a bit of anecdotes about all of them but this blog is way too long already.
Oh and #11 was WSO2’s own Udeshika .. I gave her a ride home and she paid me :-). The plan was for her to pay with cash and then not pay but we forgot and she ended up paying her. I of course had to reimburse her (and yeah Uber still made their 25%).
So what have I learnt from this new additional pastime I’ve picked up?
Driving others around is serious stuff
This is a real responsibility — you have to show up on time, drive them safely and treat people well. Not a game.
I’ve really enjoyed being a driver and will do so whenever I can. So far I haven’t had any random people I picked who knew me .. and that’ll be just cool and fun now that I’m comfortable doing this. I am surprised (and disappointed) that it took me so long to not feel anything weird about it! I’m really glad I did it though .. and so far I’ve been lucky to not have any real bastard/bitchy customers. That’ll be another experience and probably blog worthy.
I want to be car-free
One of my objectives is to live without a car. Sri Lanka is a bit difficult to do that yet but if ride sharing takes off more then its possible. That’s also partly why I’m doing this — if you’re retired or otherwise available and have a car, don’t sit around dammit, drive people around! We don’t yet have UberPool but when we do it’ll be great because it’ll help reduce the number of vehicles on the road too.
I haven’t yet been able to get my driver to register himself and drive. I don’t know why but he keeps finding excuses. My plan is for him to earn the car from me .. but he has to work for it. Haven’t given up yet.
Not quite the gig economy in Sri Lanka
I make it a point to always chat up PickMe or Uber drivers to hear their stories and what I’ve seen is that most drivers are simply hired drivers working for someone. In other words, again, people with money are seeing this the Uber gig jobs as yet another way to make money.
That’s even more reason why if you’re sitting at home and have a car you MUST get out and drive! Uber / PickMe are awesome ways for people to do some work when they can and make some money.
Uber/PickMe is considered fair by drivers
A lot of drivers say they much prefer driving for these automated dispatch systems because it has eliminated favoritism and other forms of discrimination in normal taxi dispatch guys (you can guess the names if you’re in Sri Lanka). That’s good news!
Uber charges customers too little and pays drivers even less
When I take an Uber home from office it costs me LESS than it costs to take a TukTuk. That’s crazy. And as a driver (um, apparently “partner”), after Uber takes their 25% the leftover is really really little.
I think what they’re doing is undercutting the market to dry out PickMe. Sri Lanka has few anti-competitive / anti-dumping type rules and so they get away with it. They simply need to be forced to charge a regulated fee per km driven!
Uber, in Sri Lanka at least, provides no phone number privacy to riders
If I recall correctly in the US the driver and rider communicate thru the app itself. In Sri Lanka, if the driver wants to contact the customer it just gives the customer’s phone number to the driver!
In other words, I can save the phone number of every customer I take if I so wish. Not good.
Uber software has some weird bugs
The fact that it has authorized me to drive in the US is just plain wrong. Second, I keep getting invitations saying “Take your first drive in Colombo” and repeated messages saying “Congratulations on taking your first ride!”. Plus their weird approach for showing different levels of information based on whether my account is US or LK is annoying.
That’s it. I enjoy doing this and plan to do it whenever I can. With their “take rides towards a destination” feature I see myself doing this whenever I’m alone in the car.
And yes I do realize that I am taking business away from others who need the money way more than I do. I’m not at all doing this to make money but many others are. However, I’m enjoying my new job and plan to keep it up without overdoing it. My apologies to those who’s business I’m taking away!
So next time you call an Uber be nice to the driver (no need to tip; just be human) — drivers are just normal people who do the job because its a job and it does not make them second class somehow to drive you around.