Uber is finally making riders explain themselves when they rate a driver below five stars

A flagship development.
A flagship development.
Image: Reuters/Tyrone Siu
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Uber is 35 days into its “180 Days of Change” campaign to improve the driver experience. Back in June, the company announced several updates designed to improve driver pay, including the long-awaited introduction of in-app tipping. Today (July 25), Uber is rolling out its next installment of changes. It starts with a better ratings system.

It’s no secret that Uber’s ratings are messed up. At the end of each trip, the company asks riders to rate their drivers on a scale from one to five stars. At the same time, rating a driver below five stars could lead Uber to deactivate them—the closest thing to firing an independent contractor—if it drags their overall rating below Uber’s minimum accepted threshold. That minimum rating requirement varies by city. In Atlanta, Georgia, for example, the average driver rating is a 4.8. “You are encouraged to maintain at least a 4.6 average over your most recent 100 trips,” Uber tells drivers online. “If your rating over the most recent 100 trips is below a 4.6, your profile may be at risk of deactivation.”

The result is that Uber’s ratings inflation is even worse than Harvard’s. Seasoned Uber riders are aware of this fact, but it’s understandable that someone who has never used the app before might not leave five stars on a ride that they considered merely adequate. That’s led drivers to dream up some creative ways to educate riders to their plight. One made a T-shirt. “Rideshare Rating Guide,” it reads, in bright pink font. “If you’re alive when you arrive, that’s a FIVE!” Another printed out an explanation and adhered it to the back of his seat:

★★★★★ = The ride was good, great, legendary, mediocre, average, decent, okay, maybe he missed a social cue or made a bad joke, but at least he got me where I needed to go, of course he can improve!

★★★★ = This driver sucks, fire him slowly; it does not mean “average” or “above average”. Too many of these and I may end up homeless.

Image for article titled Uber is finally making riders explain themselves when they rate a driver below five stars
Image: Uber

What Uber calls “ratings protection” is designed to protect drivers from rider complaints that have nothing to do with their performance. This is a common problem that has become even more troublesome as companies like Uber push into shared rides. Services such as UberPool and Lyft Line are still developing, which means that the rides are not always efficient or enjoyable. Sometimes riders even order them without realizing it.

More often than not that wasn’t the driver’s fault, yet there was no way to indicate so in the ratings system. Now when riders leave a “bad rating”—anything other than five stars—a screen will pop up asking them “what could be improved?” Options include “too many pickups,” “route by Uber,” and “co-rider.” Only one of five pre-populated options, “driving,” goes back to the driver, and it’s last in the list.

To be clear, this is not simply an Uber problem—it also happens on Lyft. Back in May, for instance, I was taking a Lyft Line 1.4 miles across Washington DC. The initial ETA for my ride was 18 minutes, but after 25 minutes in the car and multiple reroutes, I was four blocks from where I started and no closer to my destination. I wrote to Lyft support outlining all of this and requesting a refund. I added in the request, “this is not a driver issue.”

When “Robert” from support wrote back about two hours later, he said Lyft had refunded the charge, given me a $5 ride credit, and “made sure that you will not be matched” with the driver on future rides. I wrote back reiterating that the driver was not at fault, simply following the Line route that Lyft had assigned to him, and should not be punished. I never heard back, but a “ratings protection” system along the lines of what Uber just announced would certainly have helped the situation.

The other big change is phone support. Drivers have long complained about Uber’s automated help options. The company prefers to route issues through the help section of its app, which isn’t the easiest to access. Uberpeople.net, a popular driver forum, has an entire page devoted to walking drivers through how to get help from Uber. The page includes a 1-800 number for Uber’s pilot phone support program (it began last year in San Francisco) but cautions drivers not to call it unless absolutely necessary. “Do NOT use unless you have a critical safety issue like an accident or altercation,” the page states. “They will NOT deal with non-critical issues like deactivation, fare review, general complaints, etc.” Another post on Uberpeople.net is even more straightforward: “In general Uber can not be contacted by phone.”

Uber said in an email to drivers today that it is rolling out 24/7 phone support, available directly through its driver app. “Call anytime and you’ll be connected to an agent in under 2 minutes who will listen carefully and help you find a solution,” Uber said. If they aren’t connected in two minutes, will they be paid for waiting?