If you use ride-hailing apps, you’ve seen it happen.
You hop on the Uber or Lyft app one moment to check out the price of a trip, then you look back a few minutes later to discover that surge pricing is in full effect – doubling or tripling the amount a ride would normally cost.
Most often, consumer demand is likely the culprit behind the expensive fare.
During periods of excessive demand when there are more riders than drivers or when the dearth of drivers on the road increases customer wait times, ride-hailing apps increase fares.
However, a few years back, researchers discovered that drivers can also have a hand in bumping up the amount of money you pay for a trip. And some say, given the tense contractor-versus-employee debate, Uber and Lyft drivers could still be doing it.
“I believe that drivers will probably look for ways to game the algorithm given the reduction in income per ride and combined with driver isolation and a low sense of belonging to the company,” said Lior Zalmanson, who was part of a NYU research team that investigated how drivers resist Uber’s algorithmic management to raise their wages.
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His research, which was done alongside researchers Mareike Möhlmann and Ola Henfridsson from Warwick Business School, found that gangs of drivers were forcing surge pricing by agreeing to log out en masse.
How does the hack work?
Since the Uber app software monitors driving conditions and can pick up a sudden lack of available rides, drivers would coordinate online to avoid certain areas or log out from the app at the same time.
That’s when surge pricing is engaged to manage a mismatch between supply and demand. As a result, riders spend more and both Uber and the driver make more. Once the surge pricing is activated, the drivers would quickly log back in to take advantage of the increased fee commuters pay.
“Being managed by an app, a black-box algorithm, that (drivers) don’t understand, they attempt to reverse-engineer it, understand the mechanism and regain some position of power,” Zalmanson said about the ride-sharing app manipulation.
Uber has commented in the past saying that these were failed attempts to collect more money, isolated incidents or just “talk.”
“This behavior is neither widespread or permissible on the Uber app, and we have a number of technical safeguards in place to prevent it from happening,” Uber said in the past regarding drivers trying to game the app.
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USA TODAY reached out to Uber to find out if the company has noticed recent indents of drivers trying to jack up the price of rides to take home more money.
Zalmanson said drivers of other ride-sharing platforms might try similar tactics.
“It depends on how ‘humane’ is the company’s treatment of its drivers,” Zalmanson told USA TODAY via email.
“For instance, we noticed that when the company supplied a live human-operated driver helpline (such in the case of ride service Juno, later bought by Gett), drivers seemed much more content and, we believe, less likely to be interested in pursuing such behavior.”
The internet is a hotbed of instructionals on how to hack ride-hailing apps as drivers push back against uncompromising computer control.
In 2018, Quartz reported an Uber scam that involved drivers collecting cancellation fees after intentionally never arriving to pick up riders. And The Daily Star, a British publication, reports similar practices at Gatwick and Heathrow airports in 2018.
While some drivers might try to gain the upper hand through sketchy practices, Uber ultimately controls the app. The company has strict operating guidelines and drivers (and riders) can be deactivated from the Uber network for various reasons without notice.
Also, drivers may be fighting to hold on to a losing battle as teams within both Lyft and Uber have been working to take them out of the equation completely.
For years, both companies have been working on driverless-car technologies.
“Overall, I don’t think passengers should worry that much about their own pocket,” Zalmanson said. “It’s the Uber drivers whose future is more uncertain.”
Follow Dalvin Brown on Twitter: @Dalvin_Brown.