Uber makes no secret of its ambitions to replace human drivers ASAP, testing autonomous cars in a highly public manner. But for the moment, and even for the next decade, the ride-hailing company remains reliant on an army of contractors. That relationship has been tense: Consider, for one recent example, leaked video of an Uber driver giving a ride to company CEO Travis Kalanick and arguing with him over lowered fares and shifting demands. Kalanick, who told the driver to "take responsibility," later apologized for his "disrespectful" tone.
“We’ve underinvested in the driver experience," an Uber official said on a press call in March, "and relationships with many drivers are frayed. We are now re-examining everything we do in order to rebuild that love."
Rhetoric aside, a lengthy analysis from yesterday's New York Times describes a company "engaged in an extraordinary behind-the-scenes experiment in behavioral science to manipulate [drivers] in the service of its corporate growth." The gist of the report, which grew out of interviews with dozens of current and former Uber officials, drivers, and social scientists, is that Uber uses "psychological inducements and other techniques unearthed by social science to influence when, where and how long drivers work."
Employing, or not quite employing, independent contractors is a strategy industry insiders told the Times in 2015 could save companies as much as 25 percent in costs. It also provides drivers the flexibility to choose when and how to drive, choices Uber would like to influence or "gamify" in the recent tech parlance. "Employing hundreds of social scientists and data scientists," the Times reports, "Uber has experimented with video game techniques, graphics and noncash rewards of little value that can prod drivers into working longer and harder — and sometimes at hours and locations that are less lucrative for them."
One of the ways Uber might incentivize drivers is by taking advantage of the personal earning goals they share with the company. Another will be familiar to Netflix binge watchers: The autoplay feature.
To keep drivers on the road, the company has exploited some people’s tendency to set earnings goals — alerting them that they are ever so close to hitting a precious target when they try to log off. It has even concocted an algorithm similar to a Netflix feature that automatically loads the next program, which many experts believe encourages binge-watching. In Uber’s case, this means sending drivers their next fare opportunity before their current ride is even over.
In response, Uber spokesperson Michael Amodeo told the Times, “We show drivers areas of high demand or incentivize them to drive more... But any driver can stop work literally at the tap of a button — the decision whether or not to drive is 100 percent theirs.”
“The whole thing is like a video game,” says Eli Solomon, a veteran Uber and Lyft driver in the Chicago area, speaking the Times. Tellingly, in 2015, the company released a mobile game called Uber Drive to test peoples' city knowledge and recruit them to drive for Uber in real life.
As he tried to log off at 7:13 a.m. on New Year’s Day last year, Josh Streeter, then an Uber driver in the Tampa, Fla., area, received a message on the company’s driver app with the headline “Make it to $330.” The text then explained: “You’re $10 away from making $330 in net earnings. Are you sure you want to go offline?” Below were two prompts: “Go offline” and “Keep driving.” The latter was already highlighted.
Behavioral science has become "a voguish field" in the last decade according to a January New Yorker article about its possible public sector applications. President Barack Obama put legal scholars like Cass Sunstein and cognitive scientists like Maya Shankar to work at the blandly named Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, where they took tools like automatic enrollment and reminder prompts to "nudge" citizens toward behavior considered to be for the social good.
But, for the most part, behavioral science has been a boon for the private sector, not the public one. Looking to the future, the Times analysis imagines a workforce employed by digital platforms such as Uber wherein "using big data and algorithms to manage workers will not simply be a niche phenomenon" as it is now. Lyft and Postmates already rely on similar approaches. "[As] so-called platform-mediated work like driving for Uber increasingly becomes the way people make a living, the company’s example illustrates that pulling psychological levers may eventually become the reigning approach to managing the American worker." That is, until the levers pull themselves.