One Way to Make Uber Better

Let drivers know where potential riders want to go.


Look, that car is passing a taxi. Get it? (Image courtesy of Flickr user  Ohad .) 

Look, that car is passing a taxi. Get it? (Image courtesy of Flickr user Ohad.) 

This past weekend my girlfriend and I were in an uberX car on our way to grab dinner and see Rise of theoops sorry wrong yearDawn of the Planet of the Apes. (Coming summer 2017: Brunch of the Planet of the Apes). My quick movie review: It’s OK but it’s no Snowpiercer.

Anyway, we were well on our way when a Prius jutted into oncoming traffic without warning. Our driver swerved left and slammed on his brakes. He avoided the errant Prius and the traffic in the lane to our left as well, but it was still a closer call than you’d want to have.

And what did our Uber driver do next? He apologized to us. Yes. You see, he was sorry for deftly not T-boning that stereotypically oblivious Angeleno motorist back there, who would have been 100% at fault.

It’s a nice little symbol for why people love Uber (and Lyft, which is also great). Our driver was friendly and professional to a tee, as almost all Uber drivers I’ve met have been. Maybe he was actually a jerk in real life and just fooled us, or maybe he was secretly in a crappy mood that day. If so, Uber’s rating system was sufficient to make him act cool. And that’s the point. To put it another way: good luck retrieving your phone or wallet if you ever forget them in a taxi.

Likewise, since the rating system is reciprocal, passengers are incentivized to be nice right back. Everybody’s usually on his or her best behavior. (Usually being the operative word — ask your drivers to tell stories of their craziest passengers.) I hope I’d be cordial to all even without a rating system involved, but I have to be honest, my experience in cabs over the years tells me that 100% compliance is unrealistic.

It’s amazing how many different sorts of people you meet who drive for Uber. In this case, our driver lived in Orange County but was trying out the L.A. streets for a day. That’s why his is a useful example of a way Uber could become even better and more efficient, especially for its drivers: let them know users’ destinations before they choose to pick them up.

In this driver’s case — as in every driver’s case — no matter where the day or night might have taken him, he had to add one more trip at the end if it all: his drive back home. But if he had been able to see potential riders’ desired destinations, he could have looked for somebody trying to head that way already, allowing him to turn his final requisite journey back to Huntington Beach into a paying route instead of just an annoying commute.

Imagine you’re an Uber or Lyft driver. You never know where your next fare might take you. You might find yourself an hour from home at 3 a.m. on a Tuesday and think, Well I guess I gotta be getting back. You won’t risk picking up another customer at that point because they might take you even farther from home. But by knowing that someone else is heading where you’re going already, or heading even just part of the way in that general direction, you suddenly can increase your paying routes every single day you choose to drive.

The same goes for everyday situations and all commutes, really. If a ride-share driver lives in Oakland but has to head down to Palo Alto for whatever reason, it’s a wasted opportunity. He or she is already driving the 30 miles down there and back, but because Uber and Lyft drivers can’t see where riders intend to go, they can’t turn these trips into fares. With that knowledge, drivers with day jobs could even earn money as they commute to work and back daily. Such opportunities might inspire more people to drive for Uber and Lyft, since they would essentially get paid for driving they’d be doing anyway.

Disclosing destinations might raise privacy concerns. There might even be regulatory hurdles (would foreknowledge of passengers’ destinations change the ride-sharing service into an unlawful hired car competitor in some states?). Some people might not want to disclose where they’re going before getting in an Uber or Lyft car, for whatever reason. But that’s OK: ride-share companies can make this part optional. It could also be based on something vague like ZIP Code or neighborhood, rather than an exact address. Besides, for the vast majority of rides, the system would work the same: the drivers would still be up for going anywhere, until they needed to end their shifts or head to a specific location. (Some drivers report that the unpredictability of their shifts is one of the best parts of the job.)

I think most users would reveal their destinations if given the choice to do so, especially since it would become another form of professional courtesy toward the drivers and because courtesy is rewarded in the Uber and Lyft ecosystems. If it’s not feasible for them to make it a constant option, perhaps it could be available only at certain times (rush hour, the wee hours of the weekends).

Of course, Uber and its competitors are justifiably preoccupied with making their service more seamless and affordable for passengers first. Adding this capability would add a step to the request process (for those who chose to do it), which is no small concern for a mobile app. It might have other unforeseeable drawbacks on the user experience. For example, drivers might start preemptively refusing riders based on their destinations. But surely Uber could devise ways to mitigate that.

Overall the option for passengers to disclose their destinations pre-pickup would help companies that are obsessed with improving efficiency and customer service to do exactly that. Plus, happier drivers means more drivers and more routes, which ultimately would serve passengers too by decreasing rates and surge times. Riders who provide their destinations could even be rewarded with discounted rates.

Considering the speculation that Uber has its eyes set on horizons far beyond mere ride-sharing (including deliveries and other verticals dependent on transportation, plus even the potential to drastically curtail car ownership itself in cities), you can bet they’re exploring plenty of ways to improve. Maybe this is something they’re already planning on testing.


Posted on July 30, 2014.


Updated August 6, 2014: Today Lyft announced the launch of its Lyft Line service, which allows riders to share their Lyft rides with other riders looking to travel a similar route. Yesterday Uber also announced the beta launch of UberPool, which is the same concept. Both of these new services are available in limited areas for now, and both rely on having riders disclose their destinations (otherwise it wouldn’t work). But I still haven’t seen the above points being made: knowing intended destinations pre-pickup could make these services more efficient for drivers (and riders) even for rides with only one passenger.