Technonlogy

Uber to charge some drivers for the chance to earn more

Sounds like a perfectly upstanding deal.

Image: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Pay now in order to potentially earn more later. It may sound like something straight out of a marketing scheme, but it’s in fact the latest promise from Uber to a subset of its drivers.

However, according to the ride-hail giant, this is not the latest revenue play from a company losing hundreds of millions of dollars a quarter, but rather part of an academic study with the goal of determining what value its drivers place on that gig economy-defining buzzword known as “flexibility.” 

The promotion was picked up by Alex Rosenblat, a researcher at Data&Society, who detailed the specifics in a Medium post. The offer, sent to drivers in the Houston area, promises the chance to bump up earnings by 33 percent — with, of course, a catch or two thrown in. 

“Buy a week of accelerated earnings for $115,” reads the message. “Opt in below by Saturday, October 21 at 11:59pm: $115 will be deducted from your pay for the week of October 16, and you’ll earn 33% more on every trip between Monday, October 23 and Sunday, October 29. As long as your weekly earnings exceed $349 you’ll come out ahead!”

The tricky part, of course, is that rides are assigned by Uber. So a driver’s ability to hit a certain number of trips — and potentially benefit from paying the company up front — is at the complete discretion of Uber itself. 

So what is Uber actually doing here? Could this be an attempt by the company to better predict future driver supply by locking its non-employees into driving the week before Halloween? Or is this, in fact, just another way the number one ride-hail provider in the world is attempting to figure out how to best squeeze every possible penny out of its drivers? How about both?

Neither, at least according to an Uber spokesperson in a call with Mashable, who insisted that this move is not indicative of any large-scale change the company intends to make. The spokesperson further noted that this study is being done in collaboration with MIT, and, for good measure, that it was approved by the university’s institutional review board. 

“Drivers tell us that they value the ability to choose when, where and how long to work,” the spokesperson told Mashable. “This academic study is part of broader efforts to better understand the extent to which drivers benefit from Uber’s flexible work model in quantitative terms.”

The study, which according to the spokesperson currently involves less than 1,000 drivers who have opted in, is focused on the city of Houston. However, it follows on similar research conducted in Boston. Obviously, whatever it is that Uber is trying to learn here, they’re attempting to get a wide and diverse sample. It’s almost like Uber has plans to roll this out on a larger scale — despite the company’s denial. 

And, well, what that says about the future of the gig economy is not so inspiring. Paying for the opportunity to work is some depressing shit, and just like the company’s self-driving play, Uber appears to be positioning itself to dominate whatever particularly dark future comes out of that. 

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