18 May 2019 | Kari Paul | The Guardian
Less than a week after a disappointing IPO, Uber is taking the guesswork out of whether to make friendly banter during your rides with a new “quiet” option on the app – the latest move from the tech world to digitize human interaction.
In online posts and interviews, drivers were divided over the app’s new “conversation” section, which allows riders to choose “quiet preferred”, “happy to chat” or “no preference” before ordering a car.
In a forum for Uber drivers, some categorically decried the change as a violation of “free speech”, while others said determining a rider’s needs can be a source of anxiety. Still others worried about how the feature would affect their ratings.
Jay Cradeur, a driver who has completed more than 24,000 rides for Uber, told the Guardian the button was another step toward dehumanizing drivers.
“It feels like they are just turning us into robots,” Cradeur said. “This feature is telling us to just shut up and drive, and as a human being, I don’t like being told how to do my job.”
Cradeur has gone from being a full-time driver to only driving occasionally after Uber has slashed rates for drivers in recent years. He says the change is another way for Uber to minimize the amount of skill required to drive on the platform. Uber has been transparent about its plan to incorporate self-driving cars into fleets in the future.
“It used to feel like it took a lot of skill to maximize your revenue as an Uber driver,” Cradeur said. “Now they are taking away even the skill to have a good conversation.”
Whether to chat with an Uber driver has long been a sticking point for passengers, and drivers have come up with creative ways to determine what level of conversation riders want or need.
Uber drivers whose rating falls below 4.6 stars risk being deactivated from the app, and ratings often depend heavily on driver-passenger interaction.
“As a driver I always try to read the passenger as soon as they get in by asking them a few questions,” said Rebecca Stack-Martinez, an Uber driver in California’s San Francisco Bay Area. “But not every driver has the ability to read people, and we are always very worried about our ratings. This is one way we can improve our ratings, and one less thing to figure out in the span of a few seconds.”
Forced conversation has come to feel like an extra layer of labor drivers aren’t compensated for, some say. Mohammad Sadiq Safi, a driver with Uber, previously told the Guardian that determining how to interact with passengers takes a toll.
“It is too hard to give happiness to everyone,” he said. “Every passenger is different: someone is drunk, someone is happy, every person has their own issues and when they come into your car you have to deal with the situation, so it is hard for us emotionally.”
Transparency about how ratings work and having more say in the system were demands central to Uber drivers’ strike ahead of the company’s IPO last week.
Uber did not respond to a query regarding whether the silence feature would be added to UberX and other cheaper ride options.
For years, a quiet feature has been “one of the most popular suggestions for Uber”, from both riders and driver said Ippei Takahashi, founder and CEO of the ridesharing discussion forum RideGuru.
“Drivers will certainly not be offended if the user chooses the ‘quiet’ option, as most of them prefer to focus on their driving, which, of course, is their primary task,” he said. “Some outspoken drivers have shared that they don’t mind this option for themselves, so they can tell the riders they prefer to not talk.”
When the rival service Lyft first launched, it framed drivers as buddies and rides as a social experience rather than one that is transactional. The company tried to push a tradition of riders and drivers “fist bumping” each other as the passenger enters or leaves the car. Riders were encouraged to sit in the front seat and make conversation.
Since then, however, Lyft has also suggested it may implement a similar “zen mode” for its app that allows riders to request silence. Uber did not say whether it plans to expand the quiet option to other kinds of rides in the future.