Fun Stuff

My Life as a Would-be Uber Driver

December 15: Outside snow blows like the opening of Stars Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back. But my wife, daughter and I have free seats and popcorn for this evening’s exclusive previewing of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. We ain’t missing that. I suggest public transit. The cinema’s in the outskirts of Toronto, but well-serviced.

“No problem, I’ll just call an Uber,” my wife suggests. “It probably won’t be much more expensive.”

The car’s here seven minutes after it’s requested on the app, but the progress thereafter is slow. It takes 45 minutes to make a 20-minute trip. We arrive a few minutes before the curtain, and enjoy our first experience with Uber’s surge pricing. We just paid $93 for a 13 km ride!

Didn’t someone say this is cheaper than cabs?

From behind a tub of popcorn,’s editor asks when I’ll finally begin this Uber driving experiment. “So I can hail you from the street corner,” he smirks. He and his boss first proposed the story over a year ago. “Just four days from now,” I respond, envisioning two weeks of $93 rides over the upcoming holidays.

Getting set up as an Uber driver is no holiday

Just getting started nearly finishes me, for three reasons:
1) Bureaucracy, especially when you don’t actually own the car.
2) My proclivity for finding faults in software.
3) The holiday season time of year stymies efforts to become an Uber driver.

Hurdle 1: Bureaucracy

Just ask Uber. It’s “easy” to become a trusted partner. You need a well-running four-door car or minivan which seats five including the driver, whose model year is no earlier than 2009 – and which has never been rebuilt.

Now, I don’t own a car, however the staff at Mazda Canada were happy to supply a new CX-9 three-row SUV. A rolling study in practicality, the CX-9 has been completely redesigned for 2016 and this experiment – CX-9 as land-yacht-taxi – could suit them neatly.

What about ownership? Uber only insists that your name be on the insurance as a secondary driver if the car you drive isn’t yours. (Once you switch your mobile device to online mode, signaling you’re looking to pick up a fare, Uber’s insurance automatically covers you and your passengers.)

Mazda’s PR team arranged for me to be a secondary driver of a red 2016 CX-9 GT AWD from December 21 till January 3. “That should be plenty of time,” we agree.

A would-be Uber driver also needs a clean license, proof of legitimacy in the country (for purposes of work) and vehicle registration (i.e. ownership). A political quirk: If you want to drive in Toronto, which is where I live, you also need proof of a recent inspection. Surely I wouldn’t need that though because this was a brand new car – the paint was practically wet – as the registration attests.

So: simply upload these documents to their site and you’re exceptionally close to being roadworthy. Unless you get an email saying there were problems with your documents.

Hurdle 2: My gift for stumping “simple” technologies

“Toronto is booming and Uber makes it easy for you to cash in on the action.” When an app or website has to tell you something’s easy, you’re either witnessing a nose-stretching lie or invincibly ignorant optimism. Scanning, photographing and uploading the documents prove a bugger. The software wouldn’t accept one of the files I’d loaded.

Moreover, the app you need on your smartphone “simply” wouldn’t launch on my new iPhone.

Of course, Uber learned early that their trusted partners like me were probably not all 20-something aspiring disrupters like themselves. (A quick Google confirms that zero Nobel Prize winners drive an Uber part-time.) So they’ve opened help centres in major markets for techno-frauds like me to iron out the myriad problems we manage to create. There are three in the GTA. I decide that I’ll “simply” visit the closest one first thing in the morning.

The man is very friendly. In fact, all the people are friendly and very helpful during each of the four visits it’ll take me to get licensed to drive in town. First, it turns out that I had downloaded the wrong app. I needed Uber Driver from the app store and not the similar looking Uber Partner which is still only half loaded onto my iPhone and may well be siphoning daily fitness data to some teenager in the Ukraine as you read this. He helps me download the correct app and shows me how to switch on to accept rides.

Before that, though, I would need proof of the CX-9’s inspection. “But it’s a brand new car,” I say, showing the ownership again. Too bad! As of July 15, 2016, Toronto the Good made such proof a by-law.

Furthermore, the City would need a “couple of extra days” to confirm that I’m not a genocidal maniac or escaping democrat. But that’s not a big deal, he cheerfully adds, because “as soon as you have the CX-9’s certification OK’d, you can start driving right away anywhere but Toronto.” No need to wait.

“What? I live in Toronto. That’s where I want to drive.” Too bad.

“The City usually takes a couple of days to do a background check. It’s Tuesday. You should be ready before Christmas.”

Call me cynical. We were getting perilously close to the Holidays, the time of year when stultified bureaucracies like Toronto’s calcify. And while sorting red tape with Uber may be “easy”, the City of Toronto doesn’t even bother lying about that.

Hurdle 3: More bureaucracy compounded by the time of year

December 21: Mazda’s PR team has made an appointment for me to get their brand new CX-9 inspected in the GTA’s northern fringe two days after I picked it up. It’s 55 unpaid kilometres away but, midday, the roads are moving and the dealer’s service is quick. The cost is $189.84, covered by Mazda Canada. Uber has a special deal with Canadian Tire wherein driver “partners” like me can save some cash on their inspection. So it may well have cost less done there.

The good, if not surprising, news? The brand new CX-9 passed!

I drive home, scan and upload the proof. So far I’ve spent about six hours trying to make this work, but that ought to be it.

The system emails back later that evening that there was an error in the paperwork. I decide that I’ll pay a second visit to the downtown Uber help centre the following morning.

December 22: “There’s nothing wrong with this. You’re ready to drive.”

Sigh. “Good. Here in the city?”

“No! But anywhere else in Ontario.” ...sigh.

Buck up! There’s still plenty of other work to finish, plus preparations for the holidays. I decide to wait the city and Uber out. Meanwhile, we make use of this sizeable SUV.

We’ll return to your regularly scheduled story after this brief CX-9 interlude

The Mazda CX-9 was completely redesigned for 2016. Available with front-wheel drive, this tester features AWD with active torque split because we Canadians love that.

At 5,065 mm long and 2,207 mm wide, mirror to mirror, the CX-9 comfortably accommodates a passel of up to seven tipsy wassailers with room for presents.

Great for people crazy enough to drive in Toronto, this GT comes standard with rearview camera and rear parking sensor, plus advanced blind-spot monitoring (BSM). A BSM warning appears in both your heads-up display and side mirrors and should be a must for every city driver. It saved me several times from the GTA’s famously ignorant drivers, who are overcome with the joys of the season all-year-round.

Speaking of which, the lane-departure warning and lane-keep assist systems are equally welcome for someone who doesn’t feel comfortable driving such a large vehicle. They are extra, but part of the $1,600 Technology Package.

Weighing 1,917 kg, the CX-9 is powered by a plucky 2.5L four-cylinder turbo engine that achieves 227 hp at 6,000rpm. There is some lag when you accelerate hard. However, there’s a pleasing amount of torque delivery at lower speeds, reaching 310 lb-ft at 2,000 rpm. The steering adjusts power assist to speed. So backing out of your liquor store parking space with booze for the office holiday party isn’t a workout, but switching lanes at 120 km/h feels firm and connected.

All this stuff rests in the back of my consciousness behind a much louder thought. The City hasn’t rubber-stamped me after two days. Three days. Four. To repeat, I am allowed to drive anywhere in Ontario except where I actually live. “They work on Saturdays and they’re pretty fast these days,” the Uber rep assured me. So I should get a few good stories under my belt before the place shuts down.

Christmas comes but the City of Toronto has yet to license me

With the Yule falling on a Sunday this year, both the subsequent Monday and Tuesday are holidays. The City workers will be back in the office Wednesday through Friday, December 28 to 30, but no one’s holding their breath for a Brady Bunch Christmas miracle (especially not this year of 2016 which stole the great Florence Henderson and George Michael from us #toosoon).

Friday, December 30, 8:30 am: I am out of time. We’ll be taking the CX-9 out of town to visit family in the country this afternoon and the city of Toronto will not be working after today. So I need to start driving now for research, even if I must spend gas money and two hours in travel time, getting out of town, just to do it. I decide to go to Mississauga to be an Uber driver.

10:00 am: I exit the highway and am immediately lost in a maze of plazas and big box store campuses. That’s okay though, because Uber exploits popular GPS services like Google Maps. It’ll direct me. Slightly nervous — it has been ten days but we’re finally getting started — I launch the app on my phone.

Password Required, it reports back!

“FUDGE!” I sort of say.

But we can fix this. Indeed, expecting more hurdles, I have brought my laptop with me. However, paranoid to the bone, I never keep passwords on it. So, I check my computer for Uber’s Welcome email sent last week for the address of Mississauga’s Uber office, program it into the CX-9’s nav system and travel another 5 km farther from the city for a fourth in-person visit.

10:36 am: Upon arriving, my phone dings the arrival of a text. “Good news! You have been licensed by the City of Toronto for ride sharing.” Yes, that really happens. The world’s so weird you can’t even tell the difference any more.

Not at all angry, more relieved, I slink into the Uber office. The man immediately helps me launch the app, bypassing the password. In 10 minutes, I’m done and finally, finally, ready to begin driving.

So a week and a half after starting, I accept my first fare.

Part Two: My would-be life as an actual Uber driver

The pickup destination is surprisingly close to my editor’s home. Oh god, has he actually been waiting to hail me from his street corner since last Monday? I pass his home but — FUDGE — realize I’ve also passed the pickup spot.

There’s a small arrow on the software with the title “Navigate”. Touch it and a robotic voice announces directions while the map moves. I arrive five minutes later than the three initially promised to my first fare. No doubt, the people waiting think their driver’s an idiot. I would. You would.

Two pissed-off-looking and beefy young men emerge from a condo tower. The bigger one gets in beside me. The CX-9 has three rows and seats seven comfortably.

Are they about to jack me? Thoughts race about. The downside: hospital stay for the New Year; permanent physical injuries. Any upside? Hello, 2017 AJAC Bridgestone Award for Feature Writing!

However, it turns out their grumpiness is warranted, just not with me. Their building’s garage doesn’t recognize their key fobs. You can bet they were promised “easy” access to their parking spots, 24/7. So both of them had had to park on the street the night before after returning home late from work, and their cars had been towed.

“That sucks,” I wisely intone. No response.

We head to St. Clair and Keele, the part of Toronto that most resembles the least-attractive parts of New Jersey, where they would have to pay the usurious mooring fees that private towing firms charge.

I have to go home after this first fare, nearly three hours after leaving it. How much did I make? Just over $16! That is before gas, time spent and vehicular depreciation. But tomorrow will be different.

On the second day of Uber, the software sent to me . . .

New Year’s Eve, 9:00 am: My 20-year old daughter is curious about this weird story idea. So could she come along — at least as long as there’s room? Sure!

The first guests aren’t thrilled at the idea of sharing the ride with someone who’s not paying but theirs is only a five-minute drive, so bugger them. Immediately after they exit the CX-9, the app announces another possible fare.

Possible fare, you’re asking?

Each ride is an agreement between both driver and rider, brokered by Uber, for which it takes a 20 percent cut. Both parties have the option to say no before proceeding. The driver sees a flashing, gradually disappearing circle. You have 15 seconds to decide whether to accept the incoming fare. I accept. It’s slightly uptown.

9:20 am: We arrive at the second fare of the day and my daughter has to leave. There won’t be room. Really.

The CX-9 is huge. Sometimes it feels like driving a hide-a-bed. But this one time I need a lot of space, which it truly has, it doesn’t have enough. A couple with two babies and enough luggage to outfit the Kardashian sisters for three television seasons is flying home to Egypt. After 15 minutes of packing and repacking, it becomes obvious: they need to summon another Uber driver – who takes the remaining gear, mother and one baby, and tails me all the way to their drop-off at Terminal 1.

10:30 am: The airport ought to be a great source of lucrative rides. I sit around for several minutes hoping for the circular signal to announce another fare — for naught. Is it just bad timing? Is there an algorithm that favours veteran Uber drivers over new guys? A digitally enforced agreement between Uber and airport cab/limo companies? I head back into town. We’re too close to Mississauga here anyway. [Specific rules apply to airport pickups. – Ed.]

Considering it’s the holidays, the day’s drives prove inconsistent. A Chinese couple on vacation wants to get out to the zoo on the far side of the GTA to see the pandas. Then an enterprising couple uses me as a booze delivery service from Pickering (the eastern GTA’s answer to Mississauga) to uncomfortably close to my home, where they are hosting a New Year’s party later. At 3 pm, a lonely University of Toronto student wants to head home, after learning he’s locked out of what may be Canada’s biggest but is definitely its ugliest library.

Then my phone goes quiet and stays that way for an extended period. I shut it off, long before New Year’s Eve shows any promise of $93 fares for 13 km rides.

I do Uber again a couple of times over the next couple of days. Short trips with interesting people are punctuated by long silences from the app. I would’ve thought this would be a turkey shoot for fares. On January 2, I’m sitting in a North York parking lot, bored out of my face, staring at my silent phone.

Stay in school kids.

This ain’t no get-rich-quick scheme

Have time on your hands? Do you find people really, really interesting? Do you understand the implications of receiving traceable pre-tax, pre-expense dollars? Most importantly, do you need to own a newish car, which you’d like to pay off in that aforementioned spare time?

Then being an Uber driver would be a great idea for you. The app packs a lot of information into a small interface. For instance, if you have a destination that you’re driving to anyway — say you’re picking up your mother from chemo across town — you can program it into your phone. If there’s someone going your way within a few minutes of your route, you can choose to take the fare. The software allows that feature twice a day.

But this is no ongoing line of $93 fares for 13 km rides. Moreover, you supply the car, the gasoline, pay your own taxes because you’re a partner (i.e. independent), also pay the repairs and depreciation, and surrender a 20 percent finder’s fee. This is all above board and written in black and white on Uber’s website, right there beneath the smiling driver. They don’t lie about it.

Uber supplies software, infrastructure, insurance (here in Ontario anyway) — and on my third visit to their office, a friendly woman gave me a welcome kit in a branded tote bag containing a harness that attaches your phone to your windshield, a USB adapter for your cigarette lighter, and an Uber sticker for your rear window.

And the final tally is…

Uber drivers assume many basic costs. Sometimes riders get free water and newspapers. Drivers pay for these extras themselves.

Drivers also cover their own gasoline. Ontario’s new cap and trade legislation increased the cost of fuel here by over 4 cents a litre on January 1 but — I just checked — there’s been no email from Uber saying they’re taking a smaller chunk of drivers’ totals.

According to (the ironically named?) Trusted Choice insurance website, a new car’s value will have lost 25 percent of its value after its first year. That sounds high but a motivated Uber driver who wants to pay off his car fast will probably be out on the roads a lot, so let’s work with it.

Overall I drove an average of two hours for each of the four days out of 15 that I had the CX-9. Let’s pretend I drove that proportion of days over a year. Four out of 15 equals about 97 days of driving over one year for an average of two hours each shift.

The retail price of the Mazda CX-9 was $49,295 but remember that after a year it would lose $12,324 (25 percent) of its value. Divided by 365 days, that’s about $33 per day. However, let’s pretend I’m among those Uber drivers who would not even buy a car if he couldn’t be an Uber driver to pay it off. In such a case, you could argue that the total annual depreciation is down to the job. So each of those 97 days would subtract $127 from the value of the car instead of $33.

It would be a rare two-hour shift that I earned back over $127 depreciation, plus however much extra in gasoline, water and newspapers.

In a court of law, any half-drunk forensic accountant would eviscerate the math above. True. But he would need to be a Christmas miracle worker to convince the jury that Uber offers a great deal for its driver partners, surge pricing or not.