Aug 4, 2015 ยท 3 minutes

During the week, I read Pando for work -- editing articles, suggesting follow-ups, responding to reader feedback. highlighting paragraphs pre-publication for lawyers.

Over the weekend, I re-read Pando for pleasure -- We’ve been publishing some remarkable writing recently and I’m already looking forward to this coming Saturday when I can enjoy John Dolan’s essay on Human Terrain or David Holmes’ startup horror short story.

There’s another benefit to reading Pando for enjoyment: Surprising facts or quotes jump out at me during the “fun” read that I missed on the first, second, third or even fourth “serious” reads. On Sunday afternoon, as I re-read an old Dan Raile story about attempts by Uber drivers to unionize, one such quote jumped out. Maybe it jumped out at you when you read it too.

The quote is from Arize Nwosu, describing the genesis of his app “Blinkr,” which allows Uber drivers to communicate with each other.

One day, while driving for Uber, Nwosu realized Blinkr could be something more.

“Another driver pulled up and said ‘turn your app off [and] it’s going to start surging.’ Lo and behold, I did and the app started surging. We made some good money that day,” he said with a laugh. “I realized the power of drivers working together ... our power can be realized if we can all communicate in real time. We would completely change the dynamic between Uber and the drivers.”

Inspiring stuff. Inspiring and outrageous.

If Nwosu’s story is true, it suggests Uber drivers are flagging each other down in the street to conspire to hack Uber’s surge pricing feature and artificially drive up prices. By agreeing to temporarily disappear from the network at an agreed time, the drivers are able to fool Uber’s demand detection algorithms into thinking there’s a drop in supply, or a surge in demand. The system compensates by implementing surge pricing, charging riders more in order to -- as the company always claims -- get more drivers on the road.

A search of the Uber People driver forum suggests others have had a similar idea

*AND-A 1 and-a 2 and -a 3 turn off

(have a little toilet, op shopping, coffee, walk, lunch, snack, movie break)

And all together now turn back on........surge?!? oh wow what a surprise!*


There is power just sitting there ready to take.....if we could all just co-operate

(Emphasis in original)

What’s alarming about the hack -- apart from the fact that it’s taken me this long to draw your attention to it -- is that it doesn’t seem to occur to Nwosu, or the users of the Uber forum, that falsely triggering surge pricing is screwing passengers. Rather, they see it as a way to score a point in their constant fight with Travis Kalanick and Uber for a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. The Uber People forum thread was titled “Clever ways to beat the system: be happy, increase surge.“

And so we see another illustration of why Travis Kalanick’s fighting perma-stance is so bad for the world. By framing his company’s interaction with everyone -- drivers, customers, regulators -- as a battle, he encourages everyone to respond in the same fashion. Uber is constantly finding ways to “disrupt” drivers, so why shouldn’t they respond in kind?

I emailed Uber to ask if they were aware of attempts to artificially trigger surge pricing, and overcharge riders but -- as is their wont -- they didn’t reply.

And why should they? Those extra surge dollars don’t come from Kalanick’s pocket, but from Uber passengers.  What appears to be a way for drivers to stick it to the man, is in fact a way for drivers to get even more of passengers’ money flowing through Uber’s app. But the driver thinks he’s scoring a point against his boss, which makes him happy, which prevents him quitting for at least another week.  And the company’s valuation just keeps on rising. 

Ho ho ho.