Confessions of an Uber driver: An inside look at Seattle’s new private driver service

Uber driver Aklilu Teka

At 6:45 p.m. last night, I logged into the Uber iPhone app and requested a private driver. Within 10 minutes, a black Town Car was sitting at my door step with a polite driver by the name Aklilu Teka ready to whisk me away to a reception at Canlis. It was part of a promotion by Uber, which is launching service in Seattle today.

You may have already heard of Uber, the fast-growing San Francisco startup that allows users to request a private driver from an Android or iPhone app and then track the driver’s progress on the phone. But I wanted to get an inside perspective on the company, so I spent my 10 minute ride interviewing Teka.

Here’s the bottom line: Teka — who hails from Ethiopia and has been driving cabs and private cars for more than 15 years — loves Uber.

And that’s very good news to Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, who told me last night that he can predict the success of a new market based on whether the drivers are happy. From what he’s seen so far, Seattle is poised to do very well.

Uber is contracting with about 40 private drivers in the Seattle area, with about two dozen on the road last night for the launch party. (A map at the party showed where drivers were in real time as guests arrived).

Teka, who happened to be circulating in the Ballard area when he got my request, arrived at my home about 10 minutes later. The veteran driver, who has been working with Uber for the past two weeks during the company’s trial period here, said he’s been impressed with the operation so far.

“I am definitely liking this because of this new technology with the GPS system, especially because there is no cash transaction between drivers and the client,” said Teka. “So, the client, they like it. They love it. No hassle. Just pick up the client and drop them off. I like it so far.”

Uber collects an individual’s credit card information before they ever step in the Town Car, and calculates the price of the ride based on the distance and time spent. The tip is always included. In Seattle, Uber charges a $7 base and $3.75 per mile or a 75 cent per minute time fee based on how fast the car is moving. A special rate between downtown Seattle and Sea-Tac airport is set at $50.

Teka, for one, likes the idea of tracking clients’ whereabouts on the iPhone. If a request comes in and he’s the closest driver, he gets first shot at the fare.

“This technology, the iPhone, it is amazing. I love it,” said Teka, who had not used an iPhone prior to joining Uber.  By the time Teka had picked me up, he had already completed about half a dozen rides.

Not everyone’s ride went as smoothly as mine. One of the guests at the party told me that his driver got lost on the way, which is understandable given the extremely tricky location of Canlis. Teka also told me that the Uber app doesn’t always provide the exact location of the client, making it a bit challenging at times to find a residence or business.

Uber also will have to overcome a Seattle cultural issue. After all, this isn’t New York and San Francisco (the other two markets where the company operates) and I am curious how the service will resonate in laid-back Seattle.

Teka, for one, is hoping that it resonates.

“We need to get busy. We like to get busy,” he said.

And Teka — who expects to get as much as 80 percent of his fares through Uber – thinks it will catch on. Asked whether he’ll be able to make money through Uber, he immediately says: “Oh, yeah.”

“I can see the future for Uber, and it looks like they are going to go all the way worldwide because of this technology,” he said.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=772388059 Matt Kowalczyk

    If you want to try Uber out, you can get a $10 credit if you sign up via this invite. http://mat.tk/ppeaBe

  • http://thedreaminaction.com/ Ryan Graves

    Thanks for the write-up John. 

    It’s important to note that you can also use Uber from Blackberry, Windows Phone 7, or the rockin’ Razor via Text Message requests. Just sign up on line and send your address to 827-222 and a car will be en route!

    Ryan Graves, VP at Uber

  • Peter Horadan

    UBER rules.  I’ve waited a long time for it to come to Seattle, and have used it 4 times during the trial.  It’s a bit pricier than a cab, but just SOOO much nicer.  My favorite part is they show you exactly where your driver is as he is en route to pick you up.  For example last night the UBER app said my driver would be to my location in Westlake in 4 minutes … but I could see the driver was on Dexter and it would be more like 10 minutes  (cars don’t fly like crows).  The visibility is just awesome.

    And the cars are clean, the drivers are nice, and no worrying about tipping. 

    Yes I can live in Seattle and wear my birkenstocks with socks, and my cargo shorts and fleece, and still love a ride in a clean town car.

  • Jamie

    Addison Lee have been doing this in London for a while now.
    http://www.addisonlee.com/

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1564411635 Marcos Antonio Parente Lemos

    Yes, Uber is the Best service. I am Uber Driver. I am on vacation now. But my Boss Marcos Costa is avalable, Just call Uber in your Iphone.

  • Brian Crouch

    Sounds like a real mensch. An Uber-mensch, as it were. 

  • Steve Aziz

    Uber Driver Here in San Francisco.   Uber is the Best thing that happen to the Limo Industry Here in SF   Uber Rocks!  I love this Service and it works Well here in SF. The guys the run it are great and their customer Support Rocks!  I have been with Uber From the start. My advice to the Seattle Market Drivers is to Hang in there You will be Very Satisfied Down the Road.

  • Guest

    Congratulations to Uber! The thought of “hailing” a cab, standing outside in the pouring rain for some disheveled-looking Toyota Prius to screech to a stop in front of me, frankly terrifies me. I would much rather sit inside, sipping a tepid chai tea latte, engaging in a G+ Huddle while I wait for a nice Town Car to glide to a stop and ping me.

    Sure, Uber costs more. But at least they have my credit card number so I don’t have to fumble with charge slips and tip computation while I sit in some man’s back seat. I think I speak for everyone of my socioeconomic class when I say I don’t care how much things cost — I hand over my credit card and they are paid for.

  • Rodolfo

    Funny. Here in México CIty we have “taxi stations” everywhere. You just pick up the phone, request a cab and in less than 10 minutes a cab is at your door. It is completely reliable and safe. They just use radios to communicate between the base station that takes the calls and the drivers and ask them who is closer to the pick up adress. It is about half as cheap, just as convenient and not limited to the credit card user market since You can pay in cash. It has never been considered a genius invention, it just seems logical and obvious. It is a huge industry already actually here, ita not like Uber reinvented anything, or made anything simpler, they just made it geekier by using apps and iphones… I feel that with all this startup hype, people forget that You dont need mobile and web to solve things that can be solved just as well (or better) in a simpler and more logical way.

  • Alex

    John Cook,

    You’re very naive interviewer. The driver gives you positive comments about Uber because he simply doesn’t want to lose his job – he knows his loyalty can be checked by “secret rider”.

    Secondly, he collects 80% of the fare only if he owns the car. If he does not – he gets forty.

    Thirdly, you forgot to mention drivers are not paid hourly,

    Finally, if you think the tip is included – you’re wrong again. The gratuity amount is $0.00. Again driver won’t tell you that, because you can complain about him askig for tip and he’d be axed. Or you might rate him lower and would not pass his trial period.

    Many people seem to, as they say, “love” Uber, because of its great service and low fares. Now, guys, turn on your common sense and figure where exactly the tip is…

    $50.00 to the airport:

    $10.00 goes to Uber;

    $20.00 goes to the owner of the car;

    $20.00 goes to driver, from which he has to pay for gas at least 5 bucks.

    So, the driver is left with $15.00 (and according to Uber that includes a tip).

    Major point here: take off your pink glasses and tip.

  • Uber driver in San francisco

    You are right Alex! I started to work as Uber driver in San Francisco in October 2012 and first 2 months it was fine. I liked the convenience, no contacting with dispatchers and that fact that customers love Uber. But, here are some quick facts:
    1) most drivers work 12 hour shifts, i started at busy month, and made average 500 in a shift (400 in sliw day, 600 on weekends), which is pretty good,
    2) from 500
    100 – goes to Uber
    50% from remain 400 goes to owner (he pays for insurance, maintenance, car wash, airport fees etc.)
    200 – goes to driver, and he must pay 40 for gas
    What we have: 160 doll goes to drivers picket, its about 1/3 from 500 gross income.
    Now, in Dec f…ng uber hired so many drivers, that getting a customer became really hard! And now i hardly can make 300 doll in gross, which means i get 100 only! Its impossible, because i have to meet high requirements, wear dress uniform, keep high rating, keep car superclean. And after that you get 100 doll for 12 hour shift. My owner is angry, and all drivers are angry too, we just cant make decent money because of Uber greedness. If it will so couple more weeks, i gonna leave that. Uber, you are not attractive anymore for drivers and owners, you suck!!!

  • driverchick30

    It’s now two years later and we now know that no tip is included. Uber has not garnered any loyalty from patrons in SF – they got turned off by all the surge pricing over time. I wonder how Seattle is doing. Lyft and SideCar have both given Uber a good run for their money, but it’s the drivers ultimately that will show how much Uber either changes its greedy ways or Uber will simply die a long death.

  • tim

    Uber locating you. When you use the app it always is a block or two off on the map it gives you on your screen as the client. You must take a few seconds and drag the map around and center the pin on your exact location or uber will end up someplace else. I learned this on my own after one ride was way off. This is just an inherent nature of any GPS. Especially if you are in your apartment using your cell phone for this. Remember this, and I always do this now and my Uber picks me up, at worse, two doors away and always pulls back to me when I am stepping out my door. Not a major issue given the convenience of the entire system, I love Uber!