Uber is rolling out a new app for drivers today. Most Uber passengers are unlikely to notice the change, but the app, and the fanfare with which Uber is announcing it, is meant to be yet another step toward repairing the relationship between Uber and the millions of people around the world who drive for the app.
While the new app does include some new features — more transparent earnings information, pings to notify drivers about a nearby surge — the company is highlighting the app as evidence of its recommitment to listening to drivers and incorporating their needs and ideas on its platform.
“Drivers are the heart of our service. But along the way, we lost sight of that,” Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said at a Tuesday morning conference in Los Angeles with drivers announcing the new app. “We focused too much on growth and not enough on the people who made that growth possible.”
Uber’s pivot to being a more driver-friendly platform started about a year ago, when the company, still under former CEO Travis Kalanick’s leadership, announced the “180 Days of Change,” a six-month commitment to improving the driver experience. Drivers finally got the tipping functionality they had long been clamoring for, among many other features and initiatives.
The announcement of the new app included a video of Khosrowshahi testing it as a driver on the streets of San Francisco; in it, he misses turns and is confused by the app as he ferries Uber employees around the city.
“I was supremely overconfident going into this thing,” Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said.
“I was supremely overconfident going into this thing,” Khosrowshahi joked onstage. “I was like, ‘What’s the big deal?’ To pay attention to the rider and the app and the directions was a lot tougher than I thought. So I respect you for what you do every day. When I missed that turn I totally panicked — it was disastrous.” In 2017, a video went viral of Kalanick telling a driver who confronted him about his issues with the company that “some people don’t like to take responsibility for their own shit. They blame everything in their life on somebody else."
The new app, which has been in beta testing around the world for four months, is a continuation of that initiative. “We made mistakes, and our biggest mistake was not making your experience a priority, because your experience is what defines the rider experience," said Khosrowshahi. "You've been with us all along, but along the way, we somehow lost sight of that."
With its self-driving program at a standstill across the country following a fatal collision with a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona, Uber needs its drivers more than ever. But after years of low pay, lawsuits, and general acrimony, it’s harder for Uber to hang on to its labor force than ever.
In an interview, Uber director of engineering Haider Sabri said over 300 Uber engineers worked on the new app.
“It’s probably one of the biggest company efforts we have, this driver app,” said driver experience product manager Yuhki Yamashita. “There’s a firm belief in the company that investing in this is the right thing to do.”
To test the app, Uber sent employees out into markets around the world to train drivers, interview them, and participate in ride-alongs, as part of a program it calls “Building Together.”
“We even communicated directly with drivers on a one-to-one basis over text,” said Khosrowshahi in a blog post.
In addition to testing in major markets like London and Los Angeles, Uber met with drivers in cities like Cairo, São Paulo, and Bangalore, which suggest the company is focusing on emerging markets, and thinking of how to best interface with drivers there.
Despite its trademark aggression, Uber has sometimes struggled to find a foothold outside the US. Reports suggest Ola is pulling ahead in its war against Uber in India, and last month, Uber sold its Southeast Asian division to local competitor Grab. These obstacles suggest Uber sometimes falters in the face of competitors with a deeper understanding of local markets.
The new driver app reflects Uber’s efforts to address this. For example, some drivers, especially in “emerging markets,” were having trouble ending rides after dropping off passengers in areas with poor cellular data. This is a costly error to correct for riders, and prevents drivers from moving on to the next ride, Yamashita explained. The new app uses GPS tracking to correct this bug.
The biggest change for drivers is that the new app will be putting earnings data front and center; whether a driver has daily goals, weekly goals, or wants to track their progress on earning Uber incentives, that information is now more readily available in the new app, whereas before it was only available via a website, Yamashita said. (Sabri said one of the market-specific discoveries in the research process was that Cairo drivers don’t want their earnings featured prominently in the app, out of fear that “if people see your good fortune, it could create bad luck for you,” so Uber engineers created a privacy functionality as well.)
Yamashita said drivers Uber met with around the world were excited by the attention from the company. But driver chatter in forums like UberPeople.net (“Just a diversion from the real problems,” and “Since when was the app the problem?”) suggests what drivers really want is higher prices, not new features, and that Uber still has a lot of work to do in terms of making drivers happy.
“When I came to Uber, the board brought me on because they wanted change. When I presented to the board about what my intentions were, they were that we need to change as a company. And not just change what we’re doing, but also to listen,” Khosrowshahi told the crowd of drivers on Tuesday. “We hope we're going to deserve the partnership we're talking about going forward.”