Uber has a people problem

by Edward Cone

Is it possible for a middle-aged white man with a good job to critique Uber drivers without sounding like a privileged jerk? Let’s find out!

Thesis: Uber relies too heavily on imperfect technology and underweights the importance of driver competence and customer experience; Uber better be careful.

imagePresenting issue: Uber drivers in New York frequently miss designated pick-up spots. This sounds like a trivial problem, but an unwanted turn onto a one-way street can add meaningful time to a trip – and meaningful cost, especially during surge pricing. And sometimes precise location is important; if you are, say, arranging to be picked up from a hospital or in a rainstorm, you need the vehicle to be where you expect it, instead of around the corner or across a busy avenue. Language gaps can make it difficult to correct problems by phone or text.

Underlying issue: Uber appears to be underestimating the value of human intelligence and human interaction. Uber is far from alone on this one. There is a big business opportunity for companies that marry technology with people skills.

Caveats: My evidence is anecdotal, although it does reflect scores of Uber rides in the past several months. All of those rides were in Manhattan, where GPS glitches are notoriously common, but then again the streets serving much of the island are laid out on a grid, which should make navigation easier.

The frequently proffered explanation: Some drivers tell me their app shows them only a GPS location for the pickup spot and not the street number entered and displayed on the user app.

Yeah, but: Other drivers get it right with much-higher-than-random frequency, and say they do in fact see the street numbers on their app (Uber has not responded to my request for comment).

A supposition: Uber seems to have a lot of new drivers who are not familiar with the city, and many of them appear to navigate exclusively by phone instead of occasionally looking for visual cues like a guy standing under the three-foot-high street numbers of the intended pick-up address. This would help explain the driver who could not find 53d Street, even after I told him repeatedly to look between 52d and 54th.

The risk for Uber: Other ride-hailing apps and the still-amazingly-clueless taxi industry will deliver superior services to which customers will switch with the tap of a finger.

Possible solutions: Uber invests in driver training (I’m told this is happening) and/or improves driver technology.

Future considerations: I do not look forward to arguing with self-driving cars.

Edward Cone is Technology Practice Lead at Oxford Economics