How Uber Keeps its Drivers Constantly Busy

The continuation of a five-part series from The New York Times on how tech companies, in particular Uber, the hire/ride company, make use of behavioral techniques, some gleaned from the game industry, to induce their drivers to exceed normal driver-for-hire performance.

Zynga games

By NOAM SCHEIBER, April 2, 2017, for The New York Times

When asked whether Uber’s product managers and data scientists were akin to developers at a social gaming company like Zynga, Jonathan Hall, Uber’s head of economic and policy research, accepted the analogy but rejected the implication.

“I think there’s something to that, but ultimately Zynga should worry mostly about how fun its games are rather than trying to get you to play a little bit more by some trick,” he said. He argued that exploiting people’s psychological tics was unlikely to have more than a marginal effect on how long they played Zynga’s games or drove for Uber. It is “icing on the cake,” he said.

Mr. Hall is clearly right about the effects of certain techniques, like those pitched at drivers’ tendency to set income targets or to focus more on losses than gains. On the other hand, even features that produce relatively small changes in driving patterns can become quite important to a company like Uber.

According to Mr. Parker, the former Uber manager in Dallas, increasing the number of drivers on the road by 20 percent at certain hours of the day, or in a busy part of town, can rein in a large fare surge.

surge_info_english_checkpoint_2uber_nye_besttimestoride_blog_white2Uber fare surges

More important, some of   the psychological levers that Uber pulls to increase the supply of drivers have quite powerful effects.

Consider an algorithm called forward dispatch — Lyft has a similar one — that dispatches a new ride to a driver before the current one ends. Forward dispatch shortens waiting times for passengers, who may no longer have to wait for a driver 10 minutes away when a second driver is dropping off a passenger two minutes away.

Perhaps no less important, forward dispatch causes drivers to stay on the road substantially longer during busy periods — a key goal for both companies.

Uber and Lyft explain this in essentially the same way. “Drivers keep telling us the worst thing is when they’re idle for a long time,” said Kevin Fan, the director of product at Lyft. “If it’s slow, they’re going to go sign off. We want to make sure they’re constantly busy.”

While this is unquestionably true, there is another way to think of the logic of forward dispatch: It overrides self-control.

Perhaps the most prominent example is that such automatic queuing appears to have fostered the rise of binge-watching on Netflix. “When one program is nearing the end of its running time, Netflix will automatically cue up the next episode in that series for you,” wrote the scholars Matthew Pittman and Kim Sheehan in a 2015 study of the phenomenon. “It requires very little effort to binge on Netflix; in fact, it takes more effort to stop than to keep going.”

As with viewers and binge-watching, many drivers appear to enjoy the forward-dispatch feature, which can increase earnings by keeping them busier. But it can also work against their interests by increasing the number of drivers on the road and defusing fare surges. And whether they enjoy it is separate from the question of agency — whether they have it, or whether the company does.

Uber officials say the feature initially produced so many rides at times that drivers began to experience a chronic Netflix ailment — the inability to stop for a bathroom break. Amid the uproar, Uber introduced a pause button.

“Drivers were saying: ‘I can never go offline. I’m on just continuous trips. This is a problem.’ So we redesigned it,” said Maya Choksi, a senior Uber official in charge of building products that help drivers. “In the middle of the trip, you can say, ‘Stop giving me requests.’ So you can have more control over when you want to stop driving.”

It is true that drivers can pause the services’ automatic queuing feature if they need to refill their tanks, or empty them, as the case may be. Yet once they log back in and accept their next ride, the feature kicks in again. To disable it, they would have to pause it every time they picked up a new passenger. By contrast, even Netflix allows users to permanently turn off its automatic queuing feature, known as Post-Play.

This pre-emptive hard-wiring can have a huge influence on behavior, said David Laibson, the chairman of the economics department at Harvard and a leading behavioral economist. Perhaps most notably, as Ms. Rosenblat and Luke Stark observed in an influential paper on these practices, Uber’s app does not let drivers see where a passenger is going before accepting the ride, making it hard to judge how profitable a trip will be.

Sometimes all that is necessary is the mere setting of a so-called default. Because humans tend to be governed by inertia, automatically enrolling them in retirement savings plans and then allowing them to opt out results in far higher participation than letting them opt in. Making Post-Play the default can have the same effect.

“If done right, these things can be socially beneficial,” Mr. Laibson said. “But you can think of all sorts of choice architecture that are quite contrary to human well-being.”

Even Mr. Hall, the Uber research director who downplayed the importance of behavioral economics to the company, did make at least one concession. “The optimal default we set is that we want you to do as much work as there is to do,” he said of the company’s app. “You’re not required to by any means. But that’s the default.”

To be concluded

 

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