by Gary Wunder
Technology and new business ventures are always bringing new words into our language, and one that has emerged in the last few years is Uber. It is most easily thought of as an alternative to taxicabs, but at a deeper level it is a transportation service, and this entails a somewhat different relationship between drivers, passengers, and the company.
Traditional taxi services purchase vehicles and hire drivers to work specified shifts. Usually the company is required to have insurance, and there is little question that how a taxi driver behaves and what he says reflects on the company that employs him and that he is subject to that company's policies. In turn that company is responsible for enforcing those policies and for following any regulations that pertain to its business.
By any measure running a taxi business is difficult. If a business employs too few people, passengers do not like the wait. If a business employs too many people, the drivers make less than they need, turnover is high, and the result is still a poor experience for many riders. Getting the balance right takes skill, experience, and good luck, and there is no question that this new paradigm and the use of technology makes the task of managing supply and demand much easier for Uber than for most traditional taxi services.
Uber owns no cars and does not hire its drivers as employees. Instead, a man or woman with a vehicle, a smart phone, and the Uber app signs up to be a driver. These drivers are considered independent contractors by Uber. They do not have shifts or a certain number of hours they are expected to work. Rather, Uber offers drivers increasing financial incentives based on the amount of work they complete. If they want to work fulltime hours in a busy location, they can earn more than many entry-level wage positions. If they simply want to supplement their income, they can turn on the app and accept ride requests while they are out running errands or have free time and then turn it off again when they wish to stop working. Drivers encompass a wide range of individuals: everyone from grandmothers driving while waiting to pick up a grandchild from school to former fulltime taxi drivers working well over forty hours per week.
Unlike summoning a taxi cab, one does not call a dispatcher or worry about having enough cash to make a trip. Before using the service one must download the Uber app, install it on the smart phone, and then register with Uber by setting up an account and providing a valid credit or debit card which the company will use in billing for each ride. For simplicity in describing the process for summoning a ride, I will use the word "display" to describe what appears on the screen of one's smart phone. What is spoken will depend on what the screen reader is focused on, and some of the information the blind user will need must be accessed by swiping through the available information on the screen.
When a ride is wanted, the Uber app is activated and uses GPS to determine what is assumed to be the pickup location. If the phone displays the desired pickup address, the next step is to enter the destination address. This can be done either by typing or dictating an address or by entering a business name. A list of choices is displayed, and the user selects the preferred location.
Once the pickup and destination have been entered, a fare estimate consisting of lowest and highest fare is displayed. From this screen one can either request the ride or cancel the request. When demand is high, the Uber system will include a multiplier with each fare. This is done to provide incentives for more drivers to make themselves available; they will earn higher commissions in exchange for meeting the local increased demand. In order to get a vehicle during these peak times (which Uber refers to as Surge), one must agree that his or her fare will be increased by 1.5, 2, or some other multiple of the base fare. The system is actively responsive to major shifts in supply and demand and can account for the fact that some passengers will pay more for the instant convenience while others will wait for the price to normalize. The rules for the fare calculation do not change once the request has been made and accepted, so there is no fear that a multiplier will be added if the service gets busier while one is waiting for the requested ride or is in transit.
Once a request is made, there is a slight delay while the system offers the ride request to Uber's drivers. When accepted, the name of the driver, the make and model of his or her car, the number on the license plate, and the expected arrival time (ETA) are displayed. This screen also presents a button labeled "trip options" and if pressed can be used to call or text the driver to help in making contact. Unlike a traditional taxi, in which the dispatcher can give one only an approximate ETA for his or her cab and the rider has to remain vigilant to know when the cab arrives, with the Uber app the ETA is displayed on the screen, and if focus is set on this control, it is spoken. Whether the ETA is actively tracked or not, when the driver is about a minute away, an alert is sounded, and a message indicates that the car is about to arrive.
Once in the car, the driver will usually confirm that the destination previously entered is the one desired. If it is, the driver will be guided using the GPS which is a part of the app. If the passenger believes he or she has a better route, either because of distance or traffic, he or she is free to direct the driver.
At the end of the trip the app presents the rider with the fare and asks the rider to rate the service received on a scale from one to five. The rating can also be accompanied by comments to describe one's experience: "The driver was great, but the car smelled of smoke." "The driver was friendly, and I really liked his music."
The rider is then sent an email receipt of the transaction. Riders can reply to this email to request corrections to a trip charge, and Uber customer service staff can retroactively recalculate the amount charged or resolve other customer service concerns.
So beyond explaining this flexible and efficient transportation service, why is the Braille Monitor running this article? The problem that blind people are having is that Uber drivers are sometimes passing them by when they realize that their customer is accompanied by a guide dog. Currently drivers who do not wish to transport a service animal have felt free to decline on the grounds that they own the vehicle they are using and are free to choose based on whim, allergies, or religious preference whom and what they will transport without any consequences from Uber. Although failing to serve people who are accompanied by guide dogs and other service animals is a clear violation of the law, Uber has previously claimed it is not bound by state and federal laws on the theory that it does not provide the service; it merely makes available the technology for drivers to provide service. Its argument is based on the fact that it owns no vehicles and hires no drivers. It has argued that it is only the mechanism through which drivers and passengers are connected. A similar argument was made by Napster, the music service that helped millions of users get songs they did not buy. Napster claimed that it had no music and that it was merely a connecting point where people who wanted music could meet people who had it. The argument was challenged and soundly defeated, and Uber, perhaps because of this case law or perhaps wanting more favorable press and better community relations, has begun to alter its position.
In a proposed settlement now under consideration by the court, Uber has agreed that it will obey state and federal civil rights laws regarding the transportation of people with disabilities and their service animals. The proposed settlement will require that drivers sign a statement agreeing to comply with these laws, and they are warned in this document that failure to transport a human-dog team will result in termination of the driver's contract with Uber. Drivers may still demand that the service animal they transport be kept under control, and they are free to charge a passenger for any damage done to their vehicle beyond that which would be expected through normal wear and tear.
So why wouldn't Uber drivers want to carry passengers who have service animals? Some say they fear dogs; some say they are allergic; but overwhelmingly the opposition that seems to come from the small number of Uber drivers who object to a service animal in their car springs from the desire not to dirty their new vehicle. Uber encourages its drivers to have newer cars with clean interior, and the desire to protect that car, to keep it looking new, and to treat it as a valuable and significant asset seems to be the biggest objection Uber has found from its drivers. None of these concerns, however, relieve the driver of carrying out his duty to transport people with service dogs, and the failure to do so will result in termination.
Those wishing to learn more specifics about the proposed settlement and read the legal documents should go to <http://www.trelegal.com/blog/>.
It is hard to know how long the rates of this new company will remain substantially below those of competitors who drive taxicabs. Uber is currently subsidizing some of its transportation in getting its business recognized and used. Many of us have observed this technique when it comes to air travel; a new airline comes to town with prices that the old one cannot match, and when the competition is gone, rates begin to return to where they were before the upstart business came on the scene. In fairness we should note that airlines already serving an area may cut their rates, and, because they have established more capital, will sometimes drive the new providers out of business.
In an effort to be innovative and to keep prices down, Uber is actively looking at expanding into other areas of service. Can it be used to supplement or replace paratransit systems around the country? Will users be interested enough in saving money that they will carpool with strangers traveling in the same direction? The proposed settlement addresses the issues around driver preference and remains flexible so that the lawyers for the class can negotiate additional fixes as new problems arise from Uber's rapidly evolving business model. This flexibility will ensure that the solution to currently unknown problems can be resolved even where the normal legal system of litigation cannot keep pace with Uber's further innovations.
Like other companies that use advanced technology, Uber sometimes does not put accessibility front and center in its concerns about serving passengers. More than once it has deployed a new version of its app which is less accessible than the previous one. Sometimes the accessibility only poses an inconvenience, and at other times the changes are so significant that users of the service are urged not to update. As we continue to work with Uber, we believe that accessibility will become a more integral part of their process just as meeting the special needs of blind passengers is now very much on their radar.
The National Federation of the Blind has been a strong advocate in this case, and we have been ably represented by Tim Elder of the TRE Legal Practice, Michael Nunez and Michael Bien of the Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld firm, and Larry Paradis and Julia Marks of the Disability Rights Advocates firm. Uber is a transportation service with tremendous potential, and the National Federation of the Blind is committed to seeing that it is one we can use easily and efficiently.
Because the matter is a proposed nationwide class action, it must be approved by the court. The parties have requested that the court approve the settlement within the next six months. The settlement terms will not go into effect until the agreement is finally approved. Keep following these pages for further news on the progress in seeing this settlement through to policy.