How our foreign-born author became an app in America's capital city.
WASHINGTON — About two years ago, after I experienced my first rides as a passenger with Uber, I wrote:
"Uber is not just a new model of a company. It is not just a company with a fresh design. Uber may be hip, but that's not all it is. It is all that Steven Greenhouse described and more. I would love to know more about how the drivers are selected, what standards Uber uses to choose their contract drivers. I will probably have to wait for a while, but I am tempted to try the experience of being an Uber driver myself. I only have to wait until my local DMV lets me count my driving experience from across three different continents towards an American driver's license. Then I will take this job for a couple of days a week, probably for a limited period, just so that I can understand and explain how it works."
The time has now come. After an incredibly long process of transforming my New York identity into a Washington one, three weeks ago I was finally able to join the ranks of Uber drivers. That is, for a few hours a week, when I am supposedly competing with the other 30,000 Uber drivers who serve some 600,000 residents in the capital of the United States. The size of Washington's population doubles in the morning of every work day, when commuters hop on the subway in nearby Virginia or Maryland or get in their cars, take a taxi, an Uber, Lyft, Car2Go, or Enterprise CarShare to get into D.C. for work.
Adding to the above options of transport, many commuters who work for the federal government use the fleet of 3,000 government cars. My point is that, with all this public transport, the competition for getting a passenger in your car is more than tough. But as I said, I do not compete. I joined Uber because I wanted to drive and get into the fabric of the gig economy, the pipes running under cover of a city I was only beginning to know. I never thought of the competition or had the expectation of earning seriously good money by driving for Uber. Nobody ever did, I suppose, even three years ago, when UberX drivers were still making decent money. Back then, Uber fares in L.A. were $2.50 a mile and 35 cents per minute of waiting. Earning is much thinner now, in D.C. at least, where the pay is 0.86 cents per mile and 12 cents per idle minute.
I could break down the potential numbers of an Uber driver's income, with all the costs and premiums, including the surge charges, but I will not. As David Plouffe, President Obama's 2008 campaign manager and former Uber chief adviser and master strategist, once said, driving for Uber can mean a welcome, supplemental part-time income only. Plouffe mentioned a special-education teacher in Denver who decided to drive an hour or two a week in her spare time so she could save money for a vacation to Ft. Lauderdale. It's an ideal example of why Uber driving is not a profession, and could never be since no human being can make a career of becoming a navigation app. Yes, in my short driving experience for Uber (a total of 30 hours) I realized that the circumstances of the operation — instead of converting individualism into entrepreneurship — tend to change you into an extension of global positioning navigation, or the Uber app.
It all began when I first started to apply for what I considered a recreational job, a job that would pay for my writing, get me away from the computer, and allow me to immerse myself in a social fabric different from those I typically experience.
It was Uber's way or nothing.
The first thing I discovered was that there was no Uber office in the city to coordinate or lead its army of 30,000 drivers. Once you submit online the relevant documents — driving license, car insurance, and safety inspection — you receive an OK. In my case, however, I received the following message:
After reviewing your account it appears that you've set your account to drive in New Jersey.
Since you've mentioned that you reside in Washington D.C. and you'd like to drive in this city, we start the process of switching your city. We will be reviewing your request over the next 7 business days.
Rest assured that you will be contacted directly when any next steps need to be taken.
Convinced that this was a human error that could be reversed quickly, I wrote back that I had never asked to drive in New Jersey, as evident from my residence, car insurance, registration, and newly obtained DC driving license. I've never lived in New Jersey. Would they correct the mechanical error?
I did not hear from anyone for a while, and my follow-up email bounced back because the slot of that particular communication expired, I was informed. This was the first time that I realized it was Uber's way or nothing. Why do they not like emails, I asked myself, late to realize that I'd already entered into the world of apps.
A few days later, when I got some free time to deal with this digital bureaucracy, I found a chat line with a link to Uber, and got excited that I could actually "talk" to them. I presented the problem: I never asked to drive in New Jersey. In fact, I was never asked where I wanted to drive. The person online then verified my account, said that my profile and account looked okay, but that they still needed to conduct a background check because of my desire to drive in D.C. Great, I got it, I am fine with background checks, I thought. So they do exist, I said to myself after ending the chat. I waited for their final message of approval.
The next day or so I received this message:
YOUR DOCUMENT NEEDS A SECOND LOOK
Andrej, there was an issue with one of the documents on your partner account. Please correct the issue as soon as possible.
The matter started to get complicated. After the online chat, I got an Uber account, so the chatline, when logged in, disappeared. I was asked to communicate over the driver's app. Since there is no way to send an email to Uber unless you are first prompted, the driver app became the only venue where communication between a driver and Uber can take place. This wasn't ideal in getting closer to understanding why, suddenly, my D.C. safety inspection certificate was no longer adequate, though obligatory for every car registered in Washington D.C. I started to look for an Uber office, a place I could physically go and get a less robotic explanation of what was going on. I found one, in nearby Maryland, about 14 miles from my home in D.C.
I drove there immediately. The venue was a kind of shopping mall, but when I looked for the big Uber sign displayed online with the address, I could not find it. I entered a retail store at the address I had and asked about it. The first salesman I met indicated a sales counter deep in the belly of the shop, with an Uber sign on it. Finally, things moved quickly. The person behind the Uber counter opened my account, looked at the document missing and explained that Uber wants to have the safety inspection done in Virginia or Maryland, and not in D.C, where it was local law. As I learned from this associate, it was not that my D.C. certificate was invalid, but that Uber requests an additional inspection that is more detailed than the one they require in D.C. So I was not wrong, my certificate was okay, but not for Uber. Clearly, these guys are not great communicators, but if the Virginia and Maryland safety inspection is more detailed, they have a reasonable justification.
When I drove to the nearest service station conducting them — another ten miles — the shop in the remote outskirts along an anonymous highway was a rundown place that made the D.C. inspection service look like a space station. Somewhere in the heart of the Maryland countryside, I still had to make an appointment for two days later, not because of too much business, but because the joint was run by only two people. One answered the phone and set the appointments, and the other worked on the cars, both were extremely nice. Because the inspection was paid by Uber, I gathered that my wasting more time traveling to Maryland was Uber's contribution to pleasing some local authorities and helping local business. A favor of some kind, a deal, and proof that Uber is part of the community perhaps.
A voice from the Philippines asked me for my name.
So when I got that missing piece of paper, I scanned it, got the OK from Uber and waited for confirmation that I have been approved or refused, that the background checks were over. It did not happen. This time, digging into the app, I found, hidden among the other instructions, a small phone icon. Was it a sign of my acceptance, that I now belonged to the club? I pressed it, and a voice from the Philippines asked me for my name and date of birth, then asked: "How can I help you today, Andrej?" I replied: "The ten days are over, so I was wondering if I am getting approved, or is there more to do?" The voice apologized and said "Yes, you have been cleared and you can get back on the road again. Sorry for the miscommunication. Anything else I can help you with?"
Now that the process was done, I looked at the car. I went to wash it, told my wife not put her feet on the dashboard anymore, and we agreed to stop feeding the birds in the backyard because they manage to target the shiny car from trees above.
I started to fiddle with navigation apps. How does Uber and any other navigation app work together when you are in service? There was only one way to find out. There is no simulation or tutorial; you go online and press the screen of your smartphone to accept a ride, reminding me of the Dao or Zen way of learning, by travel or practice. Still, I wanted to know beforehand how it works, to test it before I would receive my first passenger, or rider, as Uber calls them. So I asked my wife to sit with me in the car and call an Uber as soon as I came online. I activated the app for the first time, and the screen started to pulsate with a request a second later. I tried to figure out if it was my wife, but could not determine who it was. Once in the Uber app, there is no way to know who is asking for the service, no indication where the person is going until the trip is accepted and confirmed by both sides. Then the name and destination of the rider appear on the screen, and the navigation opens.
There was a second important lesson I learned: it's not the nearest passenger's request to your location that appears on your screen, but the one Uber's algorithm chooses to send you. So I drove my wife to her office without payment. Then, after she was safe in her office, I turned the app on for real. I was in the middle of downtown D.C., just a couple of blocks away from the White House. It was a busy day, a bit after the peak of rush hour in the capital of America. Never in my life did I imagine that one day I'd be doing something like this, driving a service car and navigating with an app. But more about that later, when I master this new mind game.