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Uber starts charging what it thinks you can pay

LiveMint logoLiveMint 21-05-2017 Eric Newcomer

San Francisco: Uber drivers have been complaining that the gap between the fare a rider pays and what the driver receives is getting wider. After months of unsatisfying answers, Uber Technologies Inc. is providing an explanation: It’s charging some passengers more because it needs the extra cash.

The company detailed for the first time in an interview with Bloomberg a new pricing system that’s been in testing for months in certain cities. On Friday, Uber acknowledged to drivers the discrepancy between their compensation and what riders pay. The new fare system is called “route-based pricing”, and it charges customers based on what it predicts they’re willing to pay. It’s a break from the past, when Uber calculated fares using a combination of mileage, time and multipliers based on geographic demand.

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Daniel Graf, Uber’s head of product, said the firm applies machine-learning techniques to estimate how much groups of customers are willing to shell out for a ride. Uber calculates riders’ propensity for paying a higher price for a particular route at a certain time of day. For instance, someone travelling from a wealthy neighbourhood to another tony spot might be asked to pay more than another person heading to a poorer part of town, even if demand, traffic and distance are the same.

The change stems from a feature Uber introduced last year called upfront pricing. By guaranteeing customers a certain fare before they book, the company said it provides more transparency. But it hadn’t previously said how Uber was estimating those prices and continued paying drivers using the old model.

In an attempt to ease drivers’ concerns, Uber will start reporting the price a passenger pays on each ride, though it will stop breaking out the percentage Uber takes of the fare. The company will also send drivers an updated terms of service agreement reflecting the new fee system. Route-based pricing is currently limited to 14 US cities where Uber offers its carpooling service.

The difference between the calculations of rider fares and driver pay could be the future of Uber’s business. The firm said it pockets what’s leftover and could parlay this mathematical framework into moving closer to profitability.

Graf said Uber’s pricing techniques have grown incredibly sophisticated. He oversees a team called marketplace at headquarters in San Francisco that’s staffed with economists and statisticians. Graf, a former Google and Twitter Inc. executive, sees financial engineering as a competitive advantage, one way that Uber can stay ahead of Lyft Inc. and other ride-hailing operators. Uber said it began experimenting with route-based pricing late last year.

“Google search is very simple to do; it’s very complex what’s happening behind the scenes,” Graf said. “The same thing here. Taking a trip is easy. To make this all work in a whole market, and sustainable, is really, really hard.”

In the process, pricing became something of a black box for passengers and another source of tension with drivers. Bloomberg

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