South Carolina has been full of game changers, lately. One of those in the state this past year was the presence and acceptance of Uber on the driving scene. As we near the end of 2015, I thought it would be fun to revisit a piece when it was a bit more controversial highlighting the hilarity and hi-jinx, as well as the actual experiences, of getting behind the wheel for money. The following anonymous interview was originally published for Life Out Loud on Charleston Grit March 31, 2015.
Uber rolled into Charleston amid controversy, and cab and transportation companies cried foul. Upcoming legislation is intended to address industry concerns while also helping to level the playing field in the Holy City.
Love it or hate it, Uber seems here to stay. The ruling back in January by the South Carolina Public Service Commission solidified its presence, at least through the summer, when legislation is expected to flesh out regulatory and insurance concerns.
Interested in driving for them? Think you have what it takes? Here’s an insider’s look into of one of the most innovative and technologically based transportation services to ever hit the streets of Charleston, literally.
I recently asked a friend who’s been driving for them several months now to answer some questions about his experience. The ability to set his own hours lured him to partner with the “ride-hailing service” (The Associated Press banned the term “ride-sharing,” considering it a dubious play on words), and what he says may surprise you. I certainly learned a thing or two.
But what I really wanted to know was what it was like to have random strangers in his back seat.
During a brief stint as a realtor, part of what I disliked about the gig was driving people around in my car. It felt like an invasion of personal space, and I routinely asked folks to meet me at properties to avoid unnecessary discomfort. Needless to say, I didn’t last long, although closing six transactions in my first (and only) year on the job was considered good for a newbie.
I digress…back to the dirt. Requesting anonymity, my friend describes in his own words what you can reasonably expect carting passengers around the Holy City for a fee. From how Uber treats their drivers (and riders) to moments rivaling Taxicab Confessions, anyone considering a stint behind the wheel should check out this interview first.
How long have you driven for Uber?
I started in October 2014 and have been driving ever since.
What prompted you to sign up?
I decided to sign up for supplemental income to go along with my college consulting job. It’s a cyclical gig so doing Uber has helped keep me busy during the slow periods.
Have you been pleased with your involvement? Surprises? Disappointments?
I have enjoyed it very much. Uber is so supportive of all of the drivers, with constant communication and a great staff in the Charleston regional office. I haven’t been surprised or disappointed with Uber specifically. I think my surprises and disappointments lie with the South Carolina government, but that has already been hashed out in the media enough lately.
What is it like to have strangers in your car?
You know, it is pretty fun. I haven’t had any issues with my riders except for the occasional inappropriate actions in my back seat, but as long as you keep a sense of humor about it, you forget that you have a stranger in your car.
Are you good at small talk? Do you just play music? How do you decide what to play?
Oh, yes, but you really catch on if a rider just wants to be left alone. I pick up a lot of business travelers downtown and drop them at the airport and, often, they are doing business during the ride. But if they want to chat, I usually let them take the lead. As far as music goes, I play a radio station that appeals to the younger generation and I carry an auxiliary cord so if they don’t like it, they can plug in their phones.
Do you find yourself doing more than giving rides? Are you treated like a pseudo-ambassador or tour guide making recommendations? Or, are most of your pickups locals who just need a ride?
It’s actually a nice mix of both. I don’t do any landmarks, but I do give restaurant recommendations constantly. A lot of people didn’t know restaurant week was going on recently, so that was fun making recommendations for a good deal on a great meal.
Describe your most awkward experience.
I once picked up a nice lady who had just thrown her engagement ring back at her fiancé. The ride suddenly turned from a safe ride home to a safe ride/counseling session. I hated to see her upset like she was that night and I never saw her again, so I hope everything worked out okay. I do think about that night every few weeks.
Have you ever felt unsafe?
Nope. Safety is always in the back of my mind, but it is no different than anything else we decide to do or not do. We deal with a lot of drunks, and once they hit the car, they often fall asleep!
If you answered no, have you thought about what you would do if you ever did? What precautionary measures do you take for protection? Have you prepared for potentially dangerous or unsettling situations?
I do have some precautions but have never come close to ever using them. I keep my arsenal hidden because I love the element of surprise, but if someone does try and pull something, they will be screamin’ for momma. Each rider has a rating so the driver can make the decision to accept or not accept the ride. The lower the rating, the less likely you will have a ride. Drivers have compiled a list of blacklisted addresses to never pick up from, so I feel our exposure to danger is pretty low.
What have you learned about yourself and/or others as a result of this experience?
I’ve learned to never trust a GPS and have two or three routes in your mind when you see the address. Driving King Street is an extremely frustrating experience, so I’ve had to learn what bars or restaurants are at what exact addresses. Driving for Uber has also allowed me to see parts of the city I’ve never seen in the 10 years I’ve lived here. It’s pretty neat to see how the city is changing during that time.
In addition to scheduling pickups, the app lets drivers rate their passengers based on desirability. Be nice to your driver or you may find yourself ignored the next time you need a ride.
Would you recommend it to everyone? Does it takes a special person?
Driving is definitely not for everyone. You have to have a tremendous amount of patience dealing with the horribly timed stoplights and the riders who take their sweet time getting to the vehicle. Being personable and willing to chat is part of the fun. Introverts need not bother.
How long do you see yourself doing it? Can it be, or would you consider it to be, a long term career?
Who knows how long I will do this. I don’t see this as something for years and years, but I know people who have exhausted unemployment and been out of work 1–2 years that have started doing this. It’s been a huge relief to them to have stable income again. I met one driver who does this all day and night, 6 a.m.–3 a.m. and sleeps and applies for jobs in between the down periods of the day. That is something I could never do, but she does it!
What are your thoughts on the controversy regarding regulators and insurance?
The one thing Uber does need to do is to get all of the paperwork to state regulators. The insurance issue should be of no concern given Ubers policy, from what I understand, is a commercial policy. The drivers also have their own insurance that has to be at a certain level in order to be a driver.
Have you had any pukers? How do you deal with drunk passengers?
Never had a puker. Came close, though. As soon as one guy got out of the car, he was letting lose on the exterior of a Cadillac Escalade as I drove away.
Has anyone ever refused to pay or disputed what they owed? Surge pricing --Good? Bad? Necessary evil?
The issue of payment is not up to the driver. The Uber app handles all of that, and we are paid by Uber every week. They can dispute with Uber, but the driver has a multitude of notes that we can attach to an individual ride should it be disputed. Uber is a pro-rider organization and mostly sides with the rider, but if we see something on our weekly statements to prove otherwise, Uber dismisses the rider complaint and awards the fare as normal. Surge pricing is a necessary evil, but I do not like how high it goes on major holidays. My concern is getting someone home safely at a fair price and not the $300 rides you see in the news. With that said, though, downtown-to-downtown requests need to have a certain elevation during peak periods because the driver almost gets nothing to go 3 or 4 blocks after the Uber fee per ride.
Any hookups? Has anyone made out in your car?
I’ve only ever had one promiscuous encounter in my back seat, with two riders, but that got squashed quickly. Most people just fall asleep when they hop in….the show is finally over for them!