Are Rideshare Drivers Dropping Rides to Take Advantage of Surge Pricing?
Last month I had an unusual experience with Lyft.
I had planned on taking the bus to an event, but I either just missed it or the bus was very late, so I popped open my Lyft app and requested a driver.
Then I watched my phone as the car icon started driving in circles, never getting any closer to the pickup location.
After 10 minutes of this, I texted the driver. Lyft sent back a text reminding me that asking drivers to text while driving was totally unsafe, and that I should call him instead.
I called and I swear the driver picked up and hung up. Maybe the connection was just bad. It was starting to rain pretty heavily by then.
So I canceled the ride and requested another driver. Someone accepted, but about 30 seconds later, the ride disappeared. “Set pickup,” the app told me. I tried, and the app told me there were no drivers available.
“This is a really weird night,” I thought, and started the pickup process again.
This time, when I tried to request a driver, Lyft had just instituted 100 percent surge pricing.
I have a record of texting the 100 percent surge pricing to a friend. I also have a record of Lyft reminding me not to ask drivers to text while driving. I don’t have a record of the driver who appeared to pick up my request before the request dropped 30 seconds later—I’m relying on memory for that one, and it could have just as easily been an app glitch—but as NYT’s The Haggler explains, something like this might have happened:
The Haggler hailed an Uber car and then got the standard series of messages that said, in effect, all systems go. The “Your Uber is arriving” notification came. A guy named Felix was on his way.
A moment later, Felix bailed. Make another reservation, Uber’s app stated. When the Haggler started to do just that, he was informed that surge pricing had commenced and that the fare was now 1.4 times the standard rate.
It seemed as though Felix had taken note of the surge and asked himself, “Why get a flat-rate fare when I can get a fare-and-four-tenths?”
The Haggler asked Uber whether drivers are deliberately gaming the system, and this was the response:
A company spokeswoman, Molly Spaeth, says that drivers are alerted about surge pricing, but not when the driver has already committed to picking up a rider. In that case, surge notifications are blocked, precisely to prevent drivers from angling for higher fares.
This is true, as several Uber drivers told the Haggler. But there are a handful of third-party apps that alert drivers of Uber, and its ride-share competitors, to price surges. One of them, Driver Companion, offers something called “surge alerts,” which let “you know when locations you set are surging.”
So it’s possible that Felix did take note of a surge and then opt for a higher fare.
Uber tracks how often drivers cancel, Ms. Spaeth said, and if they cancel too often, they get a warning. If the problems persist, drivers are “deactivated,” which is Uber’s version of being fired.
I don’t blame the drivers for trying to game the system, if in fact that’s what they’re doing, because we live in a world where everyone is trying to game the system, or at least min-max their lives. (It’s no coincidence that the majority of top stories on Medium are about productivity and life optimization. It’s also no coincidence that, this week, I wrote a story about productivity and life optimization.)
If rideshare companies are trying to get as much money out of people as possible through surge pricing, it makes absolute sense that rideshare drivers will also try to get as much money out of people as possible through surge pricing.
Did you think it would happen any other way?
Here’s a list of tweets from people who believe their drivers dropped them to take advantage of surge pricing. Have any of you had similar experiences? If you drive for Lyft or Uber, have you thought about doing this yourself?