We'd been driving in circles around Austin for 40 minutes.
Richard, the hapless man who'd been drafted to ride with me in my rideshare, was somewhere between a road closure and his hotel, and had been so for a comically long time. We couldn't find Richard, and he couldn't find us.
At first, I'd been joking about Richard's uselessness with my driver, but somewhere around our fourth phone call in the Richard Rendezvous mission, something snapped. "RICHARD," I yelled into the speakerphone from the back seat. "Can't you just walk a block to the Sunoco? WHAT ARE YOU DOING? I DON'T UNDERSTAND."
It was not my finest moment. I felt worse once I learned Richard was a friendly elderly man on vacation from New Zealand who had never ridden in an Uber or Lyft of any kind before.
"Both riders and drivers can't stand UberPOOL"
The problem was not Richard, and besides my yelling, the problem wasn't me. The problem is that UberPOOL and Lyft Line, two services from our ridesharing overlords that take two separate Uber rides and combine them into one, are real life exercises in game theory. Neither you, nor the driver, nor the rideshare company has any idea what the hell your experience is going to be like.
If you're not familiar, these services take your ride and open it up to other passengers. Basically, if you and a stranger are traveling from roughly the same place to roughly the same place, you can share the ride in an UberPOOL and you'll both pay 20 percent less than a standard UberX fare. Lyft Line advertises fares that are "up to 60 percent less than an original Lyft ride."
Uber and Lyft say POOL and Line are the future of transportation—Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said in a TED Talk that Pool "turns every car into a shared car," which he says will cut down on traffic, CO2 emissions, and reshape cities altogether before the coming self-driving car revolution. Lyft says these services "create a new category of transportation." If ridesharing companies are going to achieve their goal of replacing public transit, Lyft Line and UberPOOL are the first steps toward that future.
The problem with that future is that both riders and drivers can't stand UberPOOL. Drivers say it's not worth the hassle to pick up two separate riders for a fare that's usually much less than two entirely separate UberX rides. Riders have to make mental calculation about the money they could potentially save and weigh it against the likelihood of getting matched with someone else and the uncertainty that getting matched gives you.
"Getting a POOL ride with no other passenger is like, 'Yes, I'm winning the lottery.'"
As a rider, the optimal UberPOOL experience is one in which you are matched with no one else. If this happens, you get a car to yourself, meaning you get private car service that is usually cheaper than a normal ride.
I say "usually," because pricing out an UberPOOL can be an incredibly difficult task. Uber makes you only wait a minute to see if you match with another rider, but then constantly looks for other matches while you're en route. If you're matched with someone else, you'll definitely pay less than an UberX; if you're not matched with someone else, you should still pay less, but how much depends on a variety of different criteria including the time of day, where you're going, and whether a surge is in effect. This writeup on the popular The Rideshare Guy blog is the best attempt I've seen at explaining how the pricing works.
Best case scenario is that you to take a trip during rush hour or during a weekend night on a popular route, but for you to get lucky and not end up getting matched with someone else.
"Getting a POOL ride with no other passenger is like, 'Yes, I'm winning the lottery," Sandra Vahtel, a freelance writer who wrote about transitioning from being an Uber rider to an Uber driver in the L. A. Times earlier this month, told me.
I recently won this lottery—I took a solo UberPOOL from the Miami airport to South Beach—a 25-minute ride—and paid $7. Even though it's a fairly common trip, there just wasn't anyone else around trying to get an UberPOOL at the same time.
Say there had been a fellow POOLER at the airport. Then I would have had to share the ride with some stranger who may or may not be nice, may or may not have an obnoxious amount of luggage, and may or may not be going somewhere I'd consider out of the way (Uber says POOL does not "significantly increase travel time," but, in practice, it's a crapshoot). Worst case? A Richard-esque scenario in which your fellow POOLer has no idea what planet he or she is on and thus wastes lots of your time.
Even when it works as advertised, the specific economics of Lyft Line and UberPOOL are confusing, change regularly, and have a lot to do with whether or not there's a surge in effect
So why not just take UberX and pay an extra buck or two? Well, both Uber and Lyft want their share-this-rideshare plan to succeed so badly that the price difference between a POOL or a Line and normal services can be significant. Lyft doesn't charge surge prices for Line fares; Uber has ever-changing specials in various markets that can make POOL much cheaper. Right now, you can take a POOL anywhere in the Miami area for $3.05.
But the uncertainty I feel as a rider is nothing compared to the hatred many drivers have for the programs.
If you take an unmatched UberPOOL, the driver is supposed to be reimbursed by Uber for the difference between that fare and the UberX one. But that doesn't always work in practice; Uber forums are filled with drivers complaining about not getting full UberX fare for unmatched rides.
Even worse for drivers is when POOL works as it's supposed to, and drivers have to perform multiple pickups and dropoffs.
"As a driver, passenger pickup is the most stressful part of the job—there's a large amount of uncertainty," Vahtel said. By doing what are essentially two completely separate rides and getting paid only a couple bucks more than a what one normal UberX would pay, drivers say Uber is cutting down on the total possible payment. Even when it works as advertised, the specific economics of Lyft Line and UberPOOL are confusing, change regularly, and have a lot to do with whether or not there's a surge in effect.
It's worth noting that with Line, Lyft usually pays drivers for two separate rides, even though the riders always pay a lower fare. Lyft subsidizes the extra cost. For this reason, drivers don't seem to mind Lyft Line, but that is quickly changing: Earlier this month, Lyft announced in San Francisco that it would begin paying drivers for Line the way Uber pays for UberPOOL:
Uber's insistence that drivers and passengers use UberPOOL is making drivers nuts. Over at the popular UberPeople forums, UberPOOL hatred is a particularly hot topic: A small sample of threads: "UberPool making drivers reach their mental breaking point;" "UberPool boycott;" "Uber is stealing money from us."
It's not just the money, however. The uncertainty POOL and Line give passengers is worse for drivers; impatient and clueless passengers are likely to take their bad experiences out on drivers by giving them low ratings, which negatively impact how many rides drivers are able to ultimately get.
By adding an additional stranger into the equation, Uber drivers end up losing control over the customer's experience. I was acutely aware that the Richard situation was not my driver's fault, but not everyone would have been.
Uber and Lyft have experimented and tinkered with the pricing and experience of these services so much that many passengers often don't know what they're getting into. Lyft often defaults to Line, and Uber will occasionally ask "how many seats do you need?" instead of being explicit that you're taking a POOL (this seems to mainly occur at airports). And so you get riders who are confused about why they're picking up other people, and confused riders are often angry riders.
Uber and Lyft did not respond immediately to a Motherboard request for comment.
Uber drivers regularly report that the first passenger will demand that a driver not pick up the second passenger or the first passenger will get impatient with the other passenger, creating an awkward situation the driver has to handle.
"I'll get passengers who hope no one else will get in the car and then get annoyed when they do," Vahtel said. "It's a rotten attitude to take."
A blog post on The Rideshare Guy Blog specifically tells drivers to "never accept a poorly rated UberPOOL passenger," simply because they are more likely to not understand how Line or POOL works (or do understand, but are whiney about it) and thus are more likely to give drivers a bad rating.
"Every single memorable conflict comes from either one of two things: 1) Picking up an UberPool passenger, or 2) Picking up a passenger rated below a 4.7," the post says. "Therefore, it is an absolute no-no to pick up a poorly rated UberPool passenger!"
That's not always an option, however. Uber and Lyft either make it impossible for a driver to refuse these fares, or dock a driver's acceptance rate when they refuse a ride. The Uber forums are filled with drivers who say that their overall ratings have taken a hit from POOL riders (or from rejecting them), and a low driver rating means fewer rides in the future.
And so what we're left with are two services that drivers hate, passengers are confused by, annoyed with, or feel guilty about.
Why do UberPOOL and Lyft Line persist, then? First, Kalanick is adamant that UberPOOL is taking cars off the road—reducing traffic and CO2 emissions. Drivers aren't so sure about that, however. A main complaint of UberPOOL is that drivers spend more time driving around in circles in an empty car because their would-be passenger is in someone else's UberPOOL. POOL, they say, take the already saturated driver market and just make it worse. Without knowing specific driver downtime, it's hard to say if UberPOOL is actually having an impact on the environment, but the California Public Utilities Commission just ordered an environmental study to test Uber's claims.
More importantly, UberPOOL and Lyft Line put into place a model that's not unlike one that's been drawn up for self-driving robotaxis. Kalanick truly believes that shared rideshare via self-driving cars can replace mass transit, and UberPOOL is a way to train us for our robotaxi future. Robot taxis will spend all day picking up and dropping people off on demand, and they will be cheaper and more effective if the cars are as full as possible. Right now, UberPOOL and Lyft Line are not hyper efficient because of the human element, but all the interpersonal problems with UberPOOL and Lyft Line go away if the car has no driver. Uber and Lyft are training us so we're used to these services when they get rid of drivers altogether.
Uber Earth is Motherboard's exploration of the ways Uber has already changed the world and how it stands to do so in the future. Follow along here.