Uber Gave Its 'Independent' Drivers Some Freedom, Now It Might Take It Away

Uber let drivers in California preview destinations and set rates to prove their independence, but after Proposition 22 passed it's reconsidering those freedoms.
Uber Gave Its 'Independent' Drivers Some Freedom, Now It Might Take It Away
Robert Alexander / Contributor
On the Clock is Motherboard's reporting on the organized labor movement, gig work, automation, and the future of work.

On Monday, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Uber is considering stripping California drivers of the ability to preview ride destinations and set their own prices. The company introduced the features last year to prove that its drivers are independent contractors, not employees, but after the passing of Proposition 22 it’s re-evaluating whether that’s really necessary. 


Last January, Uber rolled out the features first in Sacramento, Santa Barbara and Palm Springs before taking it statewide by July in response to Assembly Bill 5, a bill which codified a test that made it harder for gig companies to continue misclassifying workers as independent contractors. To get around AB5, Uber and other gig companies bankrolled Proposition 22, a ballot initiative that exempted gig companies from reclassification after it passed in November. 

Initially, the changes were intended to fortify Uber's legal arguments that its drivers were independent contractors under the test established under AB5. The company failed to convince California courts that it satisfied all of the test's requirements, however, even after these changes. San Francisco Superior Court Judge Ethan Schulman ruled in August that Uber and Lyft  "drivers do not perform work that is 'outside the usual course' of their business” and sparked a panic as companies scrambled to delay or block his ruling.


Now that Proposition 22 has passed, the changes give drivers freedoms that do Uber no good as long as it’s now exempt from reclassification anyway. And now it wants to take those freedoms away using the argument that they made the service less reliable. 

According to the Chronicle, Uber said that many drivers made use of the features (naturally, in order to increase their often meagre earnings) and cherry-picked rides. Uber claims that a third of California drivers declined more than 80 percent of their ride requests which made getting a car less reliable, according to the Chronicle. The company also said the weekly completion rates for SF and LA airport rides had fallen to the lowest in the nation (although the Chronicle did not report that the company clarified what the rate was before this feature, or how Covid-19 affected it).

“Uber is re-evaluating past changes we made in California so we can make Uber more reliable,” the company told the paper. 

It’s unclear if Uber will actually make the changes or when, but the company is attempting to lay the groundwork. According to the Chronicle, the company even provided tweets from people frustrated with Uber’s service after the changes were implemented. 

When the change was first introduced, concerns were rightly raised that it would spark a "race to the bottom" as drivers were set against each other to provide low rates that would attract more business. Drivers at the Sacramento International Airport told The Washington Post at the time that this very thing happened early on: they attempted to collectively set fares at twice the cost of a ride, but were undercut by drivers who set their own prices lower to snag customers.

What ended up happening, however, is that drivers used the features to their advantage. It seems drivers adopted a strategy similar to the DoorDash #DeclineNow movement where drivers exercised the ability to select high-paying trips to improve their earnings. 

Uber declined to comment. 

Now that Proposition 22 has passed, there’s little need to adhere to these and other changes. After all, Uber has already hiked prices in California, after an extensive campaign insisting Proposition 22 was the only way to avoid price hikes. 

Ironically, the logic of removing drivers’ ability to select trips and set fares because it harms the service goes to show that Uber’s relationship to workers on the platform is much closer to an employee-employer relationship than truly independent contractors. Drivers on gig platforms are controlled, and freedom is bad for business.