Amid a growing recognition that data is an essential component of running a technology business, some drivers and labor advocates are considering drivers' dead miles as unseen labor, and are wondering if Uber's data collection constitutes a new kind of wage theft."Uber is the closest thing to an employer we've ever seen in this industry," said Bhairavi Desai, founder of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. "They not only direct every aspect of a driver's workday, they also profit off the entire day through data collection, not just the 'sale of a product.'"Unlike Facebook and Google, which trade users' data in exchange for their free services, riders and drivers may be thought of as more traditional customers and employees, paying and receiving a monetary fee for a service. Drivers pay a hefty cut for the ability to accept rides, between a 20-30 percent fee to Uber. But, like Uber's users, its drivers are also creating unseen value outside of those transactions.
"They not only direct every aspect of a driver's workday, they also profit off the entire day through data collection."
Uber declined to share its data on driver dead miles with Motherboard, but said that it is devoting resources to reducing them for drivers."When drivers log into Uber, they want to spend as much time as possible earning money and transporting riders," an Uber spokesperson told Motherboard. "We're constantly looking at ways we can use technology to decrease down time between trips. For example, we recently added a feature so that drivers can accept a new ride request even before they've ended their current one."
Drivers worry that data mined during dead miles may be resulting in yet more dead miles.
Spencer used to drive for Uber on weekend nights and evenings, when he could earn a good amount of money quickly and without much dead time—drunk twenty-somethings are an Uber driver's bread and butter. But with the rate cut, he decided that it wasn't worth it for him anymore. "I realized I was basically trading equity in my car for cash now," he says. His rare combination of familiarity with big data companies and time working as an Uber driver gives him unique insight into Uber's practices."Uber lives or dies by data," he says. "Their overall mission and their sustainability is completely dependent on how good their data is. The more data they can collect, the more information they can derive from patterns and behaviors. Their ability to increase profits is all dependent on that."The more data the algorithms have to work with, the more accurate they get. These algorithms are essential to Uber's business and help to ensure Uber's competitive advantage in its own marketplace against rivals like Lyft and Sidecar, the latter of which recently folded partly, its co-founder said, under pressure from Uber.Surge Pricing And Data SharingDrivers' data also helps Uber determine surge pricing, a feature that has drawn particular scrutiny from riders and drivers alike. Although the company claims that surge pricing is just a reflection of supply in demand, research by some of my colleagues at Data & Society suggests that the surge is not straightforward: Uber creates the mirage of a marketplace that obscures how its algorithms manipulate supply and demand. Some drivers understand this intuitively.
"Uber lives or dies by data. Their ability to increase profits is all dependent on that."
"Just about everything we do today is tracked by some entity for data purposes, so I'm not sure if Uber should be singled out for compensation," says Brendon.As users of free internet services, we produce valuable data all the time: Facebook and Google are two of the most obvious examples. If you're not paying for the product, the saying goes, then you are the product.Gilad Lotan, chief data scientist at Betaworks, sees Uber's use of data along the lines of that of Netflix or Amazon, which provide paid services while learning from data in aggregate."Should we consider drivers any differently?" he asks. "If we're going to scrutinize the fact that they're potentially learning from the paths we take—consumers and drivers alike—we need to scrutinize the industry writ large: Google, Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, and many more companies building services based off of aggregate data."Uber's collection of aggregate data has an endgame, and drivers aren't a part of it. In the future, one of the services Uber intends to offer is self-driving taxis. CEO Kalanick has made that goal explicit. "When there's no other dude in the car, the cost of taking an Uber becomes cheaper than owning a vehicle," he told a conference in 2014. In May, Uber poached most of Carnegie Mellon's robotics department to work on developing autonomous vehicles for the company. Kalanick has no qualms about the fact that his company's fleet of drivers will eventually be replaced by self-driving cars, saying he would just tell them that "this is the way of the world and the world isn't always great."To have a functioning fleet of optimized self-driving taxis—and compete with potential competitors like Google—Uber needs a massive amount of data. It needs to know the best routes to take all the time, every time, in every condition. By producing this data, Uber drivers may be creating the conditions for their own demise. "People who rely on Uber as their primary source of income are eventually going to be obsolete because of autonomous cars," says Spencer.Until then, drivers will continue to generate valuable data for Uber, even when they're not making money. That kind of data collection has become critical to the business of virtually all technology companies, as essential to their growth as the ads they sell and the rides they arrange. The experiences of Uber drivers makes this relationship with data more physical, if no less complicated: Data doesn't materialize out of nowhere—it's made by people simply driving around, trying to earn a living.Jay is a freelance journalist covering the intersection of technology and politics. He is currently journalist-in-residence at Data & Society Research Institute. Follow him at @jcassano.
"If we're going to scrutinize the fact that they're potentially learning from the paths we take—consumers and drivers alike—we need to scrutinize the industry writ large"