Uber just announced a new update to its app that promises to help riders circumvent the ever-controversial surge pricing. The newly released “Surge Drop” will tell riders whether surge pricing will end within 30 minutes and will also send a push notification when prices go down. Seems simple enough, but for Uber, which has endured a number of PR disasters, especially when it comes to surge pricing, it’s complicated.
Critics are calling this move a PR ploy that will eventually lead to $100 cross-town rides and are suspicious of the transparency Uber promises in its blog post on Surge Drop. It’s true that the premise of Surge Drop – a sort of app-within-an-app to fix what everyone hates about the app – feels a bit ridiculous. But isn’t Uber itself kind of ridiculous? And I don’t mean that in a bad way.
What I mean is that for those of us who remember the olden days when you either hailed your own cab or stood around in the rain forever, being able to press a button and have a car show up is a privilege.
To that end, it’s worth pointing out that Uber began as a luxury brand. The goal was not to be cheap or even fair (the first Ubers were town cars that cost $15 more than a cab ride, every time). Rather, the mission of the company was to get you a fancy car exactly when you wanted one, exactly where you wanted one. The only people I knew who took Ubers were rich.
Now, due to pressure from businesses like Lyft, the company is trying to shift its brand. It's trying to move from a luxury service into something that works for everyone, and it's still in an awkward phase. It’s hard to say what category Uber fits in, and as a result, it's vulnerable to a unique strain of attacks that would be unlikely in another industry.
No one gets upset that some clothing brands are more expensive than other brands. No one's protesting, for example, when the shopping app, Gilt, sends an update announcing it has luxury brands on sale. However, Surge Drop (and Uber's surge pricing overall) feels offensive because people have forgotten that being able to get a car anytime you want it is pretty fancy.
Even if surge pricing is just a money-making scheme for Uber, and not actually a strategy for getting more cars on the road, we should remember we live in a capitalist society. When demand is high, the person who controls the supply calls the shots. (Which is an argument that’s been controversial for Uber’s CEO.) Sometimes that feels incredibly unfair, and sometimes the consumer gets screwed.
I actually had a frustrating experience myself paying $350 for an Uber on New Year's Eve 2013, when I was stuck at a party in LA. I was so pissed off about it that I didn't use Uber for a year. When I was feeling particularly remorseful about what happened, I remember thinking two things: "I wish Uber didn't exist, so I would have been forced to wait for a cab" and "I wish there had been some way to find out when surge pricing was going to end so I could have waited."
But Uber does exist, and people (including me) are going to use it, so we might as well see what the company has to offer as it moves from a fancy car service to transportation for the people. It will be interesting to see how the new feature works and how effective it is. The pundits can say all they want, but at the end of the day, it's the riders who decide if it's useful, if we like it, and if we want to keep using it. And if not, we have plenty of other choices.
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