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Uber drivers found to be staging “mass switch-offs” to prompt surge pricing

A new study claims that Uber drivers are boosting their wages by tricking the algorithms that determine how much passengers pay.

The Warwick Business School study also showed that drivers were finding ways to cancel fares they didn’t want to take without penalty and to avoid UberPOOL which involves taking multiple passengers who are heading in the same direction in the same trip.

Drivers were found to be organising mass ‘switch-offs’ so the lack of drivers in a certain area causes surge pricing where Uber can charge passengers more because of the high demand of customers but low supply of drivers, also giving the drivers a bigger slice, too.

The ride-hailing app, which operates in 570 cities worldwide and is valued at $68bn, has been plagued by controversy about its questionable management practices.

Now, a new study by Mareike Möhlmann and Ola Henfridsson of Warwick Business School and Lior Zalmanson of New York University has unearthed details on how Uber drivers are fighting back against the “algorithmic management” used by Uber.

“Uber uses software algorithms for oversight, governance and to control drivers, who are tracked and their performance constantly evaluated,” Moehlmann said.

“In response, drivers have developed practices to regain control, even gaming the system.

“It shows that ‘algorithmic management’ that Uber uses may not only be ethically questionable but may also hurt the company itself.”

The researchers interviewed drivers in New York and London and analysed 1,012 blogs on the Uberpeople.com platform and found a mass deactivation organised.

On the platform Driver A said: “Guys stay logged off until surge.”

Driver B said: “Uber will find out if people are manipulating the system.”

Driver A added: “They already know cos it happens every week. Deactivation en masse coming soon. Watch this space.”

Professor Henfridsson added: “Drivers also either accept the first passenger on UberPOOL then log off, or just ignore requests, so they don’t have to make a detour to pick anybody else up. They then still pocket the 30 per cent commission for UberPOOL, rather than the usual 10 per cent.”

Despite it being part of the agreement, drivers also ignored UberPOOL requests.

Driver A said: “After about 2-3 days of ignoring them you will not receive anymore. I have not received an Uberpoop (sic) request in months. I guess Uber thinks they are punishing me by not sending me any more… poor me. LOL.”

“There are real tensions between drivers’ need for autonomy and a platform programmed to be always in control,” said Henridsson.

“Uber’s algorithmic management system may even be counterproductive as drivers try to break free of it.

“Indeed we found most also operated alternative ride-hailing platforms such as Lyft, Juno, and Gett, using whoever provides a ride first.”

Under constant surveillance through their phones and customer reviews, drivers’ behaviour is ranked automatically and any anomalies reported for further review, with automatic bans for not obeying orders or low grades.

Drivers receive different commission rates and bonus targets, being left in the dark as to how it is all calculated. Drivers also believe they are not given rides when they near reaching a bonus.

The compensation for UberPOOL, which drivers have to agree to do or be banned, is even more complex. Drivers are forced to accept different passengers on the same ride, even though it is not economically beneficial to do so.

“The drivers have the feeling of working for a system rather than a company and have little, if any, interaction with an actual Uber employee,” said Dr Lior Zalmanson.

“This creates tension and resentment, especially when drivers can only email to resolve problems. Uber’s strategy is not at all transparent, drivers do not know how decisions are made or even how jobs are allocated and this creates negative feelings towards the company.

“So they fight back and have found ways to use the system to their advantage.”

In May the US Department of Justice started investigating Uber over its use of software which enables the service to operate secretly where it is still awaiting official approval. 

The software, named ‘Greyball’, identifies and blocks users suspected of being officials investigating Uber. In areas where Uber is banned, restricted or not yet approved, regulators are known to have posed as passengers to investigate the company’s activity.

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