When James Bellefeuille lost his job in September 2013, he decided to turn his side job as an Uber driver into a full-time gig. And while at first he was able to make ends meet, Bellefeuille says he found it difficult to depend on the service as a primary source of income after Uber implemented a series of fare cuts.
Bellefeuille says his Uber experience led him to start his own company, Viewswagen, an in-car advertising system that lets ride-hail drivers show third-party video or display ads on a tablet in the backseat of the car. Drivers receive 60% of all ad revenue, which Bellefeuille estimates can add up to $3 to drivers' hourly income. (Standard video ads run for about 25 cents per impression, or per person who views it.) "I started Viewswagen in part because I know drivers were making so much less than they used to make," Bellefeuille told BuzzFeed News.
But now the company, which Bellefeuille launched in February, is coming up against some pushback from Uber, which is encouraging drivers to avoid the systems. And in at least one case, an Uber rep told a driver that running in-car ads could lead to deactivation.
The driver (who asked not to be named) emailed Uber support to see if it was permissible for drivers to work with companies like Viewswagen. Uber support staffer Lars responded: "Uber unfortunately cannot keep vehicles with those types of advertisements on the system."
Uber spokesperson Kristin Carvell told BuzzFeed News that the support rep was wrong in stating that drivers who work with Viewswagen would be deactivated — but did note the company is discouraging drivers from running ads in their vehicles.
"It is Uber's goal to make the rider experience as smooth and comfortable as possible," Carvell said. "We don't believe that in-ride advertising enhances the ride experience, and we discourage driver partners from working with third party in-ride advertisers such as Viewswagen. Also, it's important to note that Uber is not affiliated with any in-ride advertising company in any way, and we are not providing information about riders or drivers. That said, this Uber representative was mistaken, and these actions haven't resulted in driver partner deactivation."
Pressed further on the deactivation issue, however, Carvell said: "It's not against our policy, but we reserve the right to assess situations on a case-by-case basis to ensure a positive rider experience."
While Bellefeuille told BuzzFeed News that he was relieved to hear that drivers his company works with won't automatically be deactivated, he argues the drivers should be free to perform their jobs as they see fit, given their status as 1099 contractors.
"Uber supposedly supports entrepreneurship," he said. "The whole Viewswagen model is based on the fact that drivers are independent contractors and have the freedom to work how they please. Those messages are basically saying, 'Hey, we want drivers to be employees.'"
As BuzzFeed News reported, a number of drivers are suing Uber for misclassifying them as independent contractors, arguing that the company attempts to dictate how to perform a job — which, the IRS states, is one of the markers of an employer-employee relationship.
As the plaintiff's argument against Uber's motion for summary judgment reads, "While these 'best practices' are couched as 'suggestions,' a driver's failure to comply with them can lead to their termination."
Though Carvell said Uber won't deactivate drivers for using this service unless it interferes with a positive rider experience, it's unclear exactly what that interference entails.
Bellefeuille said he will be watching closely but feels better about signing drivers up for Viewswagen. "We're empowering drivers to make a little more money doing what they already do," he said. "Now I can tell drivers they can do it without getting deactivated. But we'll see what happens."