Uber's Hyper-Individualized Prices Are Tearing Us Apart

Do you get $4 off of rides? 50 percent? Or has Uber peered into your soul and determined you're the type of jerk who should pay full price? None of this makes sense anymore and nobody knows why.
February 7, 2020, 4:21pm
Uber's Hyper-Individualized Prices Are Tearing Us Apart
Peter Cade via Getty

Just existing is obviously an ordeal, and yet, technology companies continue to find new and exciting ways to smush the human experience into a mortifying gray smear.

Here's a great example: if you and a group of your friends want to call an Uber, it's no longer simply a matter of the most altruistic among us stepping up and paying for the ride, or alternatively pulling straws. Instead, everyone whips out their phones like fileting knives to determine who has the best discount for the same exact trip. One friend might have $4 off—respectable—while another might somehow have 50 percent off of every ride. Meanwhile you, churl, dog, wheedling troll, must pay full fucking price.

Nobody seems to know what, exactly, determines Uber's hyper-individualized fares, as the app distributes promotions seemingly at random. A few friends and colleagues believe that the less you use the app, the more promotional discounts you get in order to lure you back. This is entirely possible, even likely, although it may also have to do with Uber's market position in the region, or other factors.

In Uber's November 2019 SEC filing, the company states that "to remain competitive in certain markets," it offers "significant" customer discounts and promotions which "may adversely affect [Uber's] financial performance." And indeed it likely has: Uber loses billions of dollars every year, and in the past company executives have discussed reducing discounts to save money. (The trend recently has been the opposite. In the same SEC filing, Uber notes that its spending on marketing including promotions just about doubled compared to the same three-month period in 2018.)

Here's what an Uber spokesperson had to say in an email about what determines individual fares via promotions: "Several factors help us determine where, when, and how riders have access to certain promotions within the Uber app. Customer experience is always top of mind, and is woven throughout our ongoing promotions programs, whether they're a first or longtime user of our services."

Do you know anything more about how Uber's pricing algorithm works? Email Jordan at jordan.pearson@vice.com or contact him securely via Wickr @jordanpearson.

This highlights the psychic chaos that comes with participating in algorithmic, black box digital "marketplaces." As with Amazon, or delivery apps like GrubHub, there is the pervasive feeling with Uber's inscrutable pricing that you don't really have a handle on any of this and you can't count on anything for long. Even without promotions, Uber's pricing is mysterious: the company uses "route-based pricing" which calculates fares along a particular route based on several factors. In 2017, Uber admitted to Bloomberg that this amounts to finding the upper limit of what people are willing to pay, based on where they go and when.

On the contrary, many cities set regulated taxi fares, so you always know what a cab will roughly cost regardless of where and when you're travelling.

Until I know for a fact that this isn't the case, I will continue to believe that Uber wants me to pay full price for a ride because it can see into my soul and knows I ate pizza for lunch instead of a salad and binged four hours of Love Island the previous night instead of reading a book.

A surefire way to avoid all this, of course, is to simply not use Uber. Or, if you really hate Uber, maybe the best thing to do is use those revenue-sucking discounts as much as possible.