By | February 3, 2023
Uber's CEO became an Uber driver to see what drivers really go through

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi was under pressure to strengthen revenue from ride-hailing app in the wake of the global pandemic, which brought the overall US economy to a screeching halt, but boosted the gig economy to such an extent that Uber could not meet user demand. Uber needed more drivers, and fast, but the company’s resistance to classifying drivers as worker and a stream of complaints related to Uber the app’s notoriously poor design—for drivers, that is—held it back.

In case you missed it:

The tech company’s CEO concluded that the best way to solve Uber’s driver-related problems was to get behind the wheel of a car and become an Uber driver yourself, like it The Wall Street Journal reports in a long profile on the “secret boss”. Khosrowshahi reportedly bought a used Tesla Model Y in a very safe, but very boring, gray finish and ferried riders around San Francisco (from which Uber is based) for months under the alias “Dave K.”

Khosrowshahi began collecting fares in September 2022 as part of an ongoing campaign called “Project Boomerang”, which aimed to improve Uber for its drivers rather than for drivers, and therefore attract more people to start driving for the service. It’s not just about a premium experience exclusively for drivers, but also for drivers.

But the start was far from premium for Khosrowshahi, who struggled to navigate Uber’s sign-up process, and later had his hopes of receiving generous tips dashed by the common practice of “tip baiting.” The Uber app penalized the CEO for rejecting certain fares, and its clunky interface made it difficult to navigate and transition from one fare to another.

In other words, the app sucks for drivers. Khosrowshahi’s driving also showed him what it’s like to be at the mercy of rider reviews, per the WSJ:

A passenger recognized Uber’s CEO and asked for advice on his startup. Mr. Khosrowshahi said that most riders have not recognized him and that together they have given give him a five star rating. He said he gets nervous the nights before he drives, worried that his grade might drop the next day.

But WSJ says that the CEO’s months-extensive experience, culminating in just 100 rides and deliveries, has prompted the company’s biggest makeover since 2009. The company’s annual results also performed well Uber reports higher revenue and profit in 2022 than previous years.

Funny that it would take Uber’s CEO and a handful of other executives to get behind the wheel and experience the technical difficulties and stresses drivers face firsthand (as well as the rudeness of Uber riders) to change things.

I encourage you to go and read the whole thing WSJ profile, because it’s about as close to a benign parable about the tech industry as we can probably get — especially when it’s about the CEO of a company like Uber, which has been at odds with its drivers (ahem, workers) for years.

The experiment is far from perfect, and is hardly representative of what the average Uber driver (who doesn’t happen to moonlight as the CEO of a large tech company) will go through. At one point, for example WSJ says the CEO vowed never again to take a ticket that would take him across the Bay Bridge to Oakland during rush hour. How many Uber drivers can say the same without suffering some kind of financial loss?

But, at the very least, the profile shows how doing things that benefit the people who actually do most of the work can have positive effects on a company’s bottom line. Instead of trickle down, this is trickle up economics at work.

The changes to the app that the CEO’s driving days brought are receiving praise from drivers who have long asked for similar changes and more transparency in their pay. Now maybe let’s give these slightly happier Uber drivers some significant benefits, and not just app updates or UI patches.

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Photo: Kevin Dietsch (Getty Images)

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