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Driver Experience Essay - Uber and Lyft with a Tesla Model 3

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This is a great post and provides me a lot of insight. I am considering ridesharing again so I can have some extra cash on hand. I lost a job last year, and wound up getting another about a month later, but pays a little less. Also, my bills/expenses have increased and my partner wants to go on all these trips that will cost extra money and he makes way money more than I do, so I’m trying to think of ways to make extra money that won’t directly affect my full time job. I used to drive for Uber here in the DMV area when I had a Nissan Altima and it was okay, but I don’t really like a lot of people and one drunk college kid threw up in my car. The wear and tear on my car was getting to me as well…Also, there have been some stories of rideshare drivers getting carjacked too. I think I’ll mainly stick to airport pickups and maybe some Metro station or Commuter rail pickups around here when I start. I’m am concerned about the safety issues and the wear and tear on my M3 tbh…
Sounds like there are probably more negatives than positives for you about ridesharing in general @LBMagneto

Overall "I don't really like a lot of people" is going to make rideshare a tough proposition as it's very heavy on the dealing-with-people and often requires a lot of patience. Maybe just UberEats (but turn off rides), or something like DoorDash would be a better way to make some extra income?
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Sounds like there are probably more negatives than positives for you about ridesharing in general @LBMagneto

Overall "I don't really like a lot of people" is going to make rideshare a tough proposition as it's very heavy on the dealing-with-people and often requires a lot of patience. Maybe just UberEats (but turn off rides), or something like DoorDash would be a better way to make some extra income?
Good point, and fair enough. I was somewhat exaggerating or got triggered by my memories of working for Uber regarding saying that I don't like a lot of people. My positives usually outweighed the negatives for a long time until they didn't, if that makes sense. However, it is something to consider, and I have had to put my pride to the side and deal with things I don't necessarily want to in order to make a living in the past, so I'd act accordingly.

I am also considering just doing food delivery instead of having people in my car, because that is a popular service in my area. But there is a lot to think about and consider before I make a decision to rideshare.
I wrote the below throughout 2019 and the first few months of 2020. When the pandemic hit in March 2020 I stopped rideshare (both as a driver and rider) and am now considering whether to get back into it once I'm vaccinated. Hope you find the essay below interesting (or helpful if you're considering ridesharing your car yourself).
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Like most, I’ve been a longtime rideshare user. I signed up first for Uber, then tried Lyft, because they convinced me they were the “driver-friendly platform” amidst Uber’s public struggles with corporate misogyny and driver treatment, and because Lyft has a partnership with Delta where I earn SkyMiles for rides taken. Over the years I had a few nice conversations as a passenger but mostly just rode quietly and didn’t think much about the plight of drivers.

In late 2018, for reasons still unknown to me, Lyft began targeting me with ads in the rider app encouraging me to become a driver. Maybe they were recruiting everyone, I don’t know. That same fall, I took delivery of a brand-new Tesla Model 3 that I’d pre-ordered 2.5 years earlier. I work in software and make a good 6-figure income, but I was curious, had occasional spare time on my hands, and am evangelistic about electrical vehicles and feel that simply “getting butts in seats” in electrics is the best way to convince people to stop buying gas cars.

Lyft targeted me at an opportune time – I wouldn’t have considered ride-sharing in my previous car (a 2008 Prius) but I was eager to show off my fancy new all-electric toy, the recruitment efforts made me wonder what it was like to be a driver, and the economics of not buying gas made the financials more attractive. As a rider, I was also curious: What degree of interviews or background checks take place before drivers start picking up strangers under the Lyft brand name? What were riders like – does everyone tip nearly 100% of the time like I do? How much extra money could I really make?

I downloaded the separate “Lyft Driver” app and followed the prompts to sign up, entering personal details and uploading photos of my driver’s license, vehicle registration, insurance card, and providing permission for a background check to be conducted. No results or information about the background check were ever provided, but there was nearly a three-week delay between data entry and driving approval, so either something really happened, they were just backlogged with onboarding drivers, or the delay was meant to create the appearance of a vetting process. Whatever happened behind the scenes, I was approved to drive and received voicemails and emails over the next couple weeks encouraging me to get started, and the Driver app guided me through various tutorials about etiquette, setting up payout info, what happens when a rider cancels, and the like. (A year later, for reasons I’ll get to, I signed up for Uber as well. The process was much the same, except Uber actually provided me a copy of my background check report so I know they in fact did one.)

After a few weeks of delay (and a bit of nervousness about letting strangers in the car) I outfitted the vehicle with what I considered the tools of the trade: industrial-strength floor mats, backseat phone-charging cables, and a magnet-mount to hold my phone in place while driving. (I have never provided water/mints/etc – more on passenger-giveaway amenities later.)

When I got out driving, I did mostly weekend-days and ended my efforts before the late-night bar crowd got started, though I also did some weekday mornings and evenings before/after my day job, and once in a while a couple hours in the middle of the day when my work schedule had odd meeting arrangements leaving a mid-day gap. It struck me quickly that business-users like myself, while certainly part of the ridership, were not the majority. Ridesharing reaches across nearly every demographic and use case; there were a lot of retail workers, commuting from apartment complexes to shopping malls and fast food restaurants. There were party-goers and barflys, of course, but also many families picking up groceries, students getting to and from the library, drug users going out to or home from a score, reeking alcoholics going to the liquor store at 10 AM, and the simply unlucky who had been in car accidents and couldn’t afford to repair their cars.

While the stereotype encounter is that the passenger just wants quiet and the bored driver just wants to talk, I found that riders were split into three essentially equal groups: a third who just want quiet, a third who want to talk about the car, Tesla, or electric vehicles, and a third who want to talk about some non-car topic. One employee commuting home from an office-supplies store needed to vent for a 20-minute ride about his tyrannical boss. One very drunk 20-something taking a 3-minute ride from one bar to another informed me that while I thought I was helping the environment with an electric car, they’re actually worse than gas. One lonely guy talked all through the ride, and into his driveway, and then for nearly 5 minutes sitting in the driveway, with no encouragement, commentary or questions from me – I was about to pull the “well, I’ve gotta go” card when he finally decided of his own volition to exit the car.

Probably the most memorable ride in the first year was the aging stripper who was in transition from one abusive relationship to another. Apparently she’d been beaten at her boyfriend’s house and stormed out, walking a couple miles to a shopping plaza, to catch a ride coordinated by an ex-boyfriend she was going back to. Of course I didn’t know any of this as I drove to the designated location. Pickup was made difficult because, when I reached the shopping plaza, found no one, and called the rider from the app, I reached Savior Boyfriend who told me to “just hang tight a while” as she was walking to me, was unreachable due to not having a phone with her, but “in a bad situation” and really needed a ride out of there. Lyft terms of service gives the rider 5 minutes to get in the car, and she arrived, frantic, 10 minutes after I’d parked. On the ride I heard how Savior Boyfriend was also abusive, but, for the moment, less so than the one who’d been hitting her an hour ago, and at least his house was a warm place to sleep. She asked if we could make a stop on the way, she had left her purse at work and it was on the way anyway – work turned out to be a sketchy-looking strip club with a mud parking lot, and the “less than a minute” stop to run inside turned out to be more than 10 minutes, because she ended up briefing her boss on the boyfriend situation and negotiating the next week’s dance schedule. On the road again, she said that she had published books (I never found out what they were about) and never seemed to take a breath while relating in detail the personal limitations of both boyfriends to the complete stranger in the driver’s seat. At dropoff, Savior Boyfriend met the car and gave me a $4 cash tip, while winking and telling me that, as a driver himself, he knows how much farther it goes it when they can’t track it ($4 goes about the same distance either way, for the record).

Tipping was another area of surprise – as mentioned previously, as a passenger I tip effectively 100% of the time, as rideshares are so much cheaper and more convenient than cab arrangements and it was my understanding that, comparable to restaurant staff, it is the tips that make driving worthwhile and sustainable. I figured everyone was like me but I was very naïve. Less than 5% of riders tip – this may be an overestimation, it could be more like 1%, but regardless it is a vanishingly small percentage.

The rationale for this is understandable when you step out of the paradigm of a business traveler, likely on expense report and relatively well-to-do besides, paying for rides and tips with someone else’s money. When you’re commuting to a $16/hour job (or less), and paying $16 each way to get there and back, you’re already losing a huge portion of your earnings.

It may also need to be said that I’m an educated, articulate late-30’s white man driving a brand commonly perceived to be outrageously expensive. (While some Tesla models are legitimately six-figure cars, Model 3 starts at about $38K and mine was $55K including self-driving software licensing). I think this may impact tipping, oddly, both increasing and decreasing tips depending on the person. Some have overtly said “you must be rich” while others have said they appreciated the opportunity to see a Tesla in person and would be tipping to say thanks (and generally the latter category followed through).

Speaking of finances, the hourly revenue I’ve taken in has ranged from $0 to $50 (the latter was a long ride with no traffic and a hefty tip) but the average has been consistently in the $10-$20 per hour range. This is impacted heavily by when and where you drive, of course – there have been times where I sat for an hour or so, got no rides, and just went home. Remember, revenue (in this case meaning the amount the rideshare company deposits into the driver’s bank account) is not the same as profit, so after a rideshare driver with a traditional gas car subtracts gas and maintenance expenses, profits will likely be significantly lower.

If you’re running the engine to stay warm and you get no rides or only a few in a given hour, you could be in the hole financially, paying more for gas than you earned on rides. The day-to-day operation economics with an electric car are different; maintenance is near-zero due to the scarcity of moving parts, and electricity is a much lower-cost way to operate a vehicle, even while idling just to run the heater or A/C. Places like shopping malls, grocery stores, office parks, hotels, and more are now offering free charging to entice traffic. I have a few spots around town where I’ll spend idle time getting free electricity, but even when I’m paying for it myself plugged in in my garage, I usually spend around $5 in electricity per $100 in rideshare earnings.

Drivers are paid on a combination of time and distance, and in my market Uber pays about 17 cents per minute and about 66 cents per mile, after a “base fare” of 87 cents which is essentially a find-rider-and-pick-up payment.

In short, if a rideshare driver is trying to make a living at it, they are working very hard, very long hours and I would argue should be considered comparable to waitstaff; not-tipping should be reserved for egregiously poor service and the default expectation should be 15-20% tip (while rideshare companies take a cut of the fare, tips go in full to the driver). Cash tips are not necessary, using the app is fine, but don’t believe anyone who says drivers can’t/won’t accept cash tips. We can and we will.

In addition to the financial impact, we should consider the life-impact that rideshare can have, on the drivers and their families. On the positive side, of course, the extra income is nice and can fund any number of things the driver or the family wants or needs to do. Personally, I have a child with health challenges and rideshare income has helped defray the costs of a private school environment more attuned to his needs. For some, it’s just a reason to get out of the house and interact with people, however superficially, during periods like retirement or job transitions which can be lonely. And for me personally, while I was initially worried about the risks of interacting with strangers and putting them in my car, in over a year of casual rideshare I’ve had literally zero real problems. There were a couple of annoyingly-drunk people, a couple of entitled you-are-my-servant type attitudes, but nothing that I would consider a substantive problem. The behavior and considerate-ness of my passengers has actually restored my faith in humanity a bit – people are fine, really, and more often than not go out of their way to be nice to each other.

This said, especially for new drivers learning the ropes, there can be negative outcomes too. For one, peak demand is at the times you would expect; morning commutes, evenings/nights, and especially weekend nights – right at the times when family dinners, bedtime stories, date nights, or the like are most likely to occur. And because drivers typically don’t know when accepting a ride how far they’ll be going, or in what direction, you can easily end up much farther from home than you intended.

There is also the risk, for some driver personalities, of chasing a particular financial outcome to the detriment of family life. In my personal case, after a couple months of driving I was becoming more confident and decided that if I drove really hard during a reunion event at a large local college, that I could earn a lot in a single weekend; I wasn’t sure how much but I figured it would be substantial. I told my wife when I went out Saturday evening that I’d be driving late, and not to wait up – she wasn’t thrilled, but she agreed. The event included many late-night and all-night parties, with demand for rides radically outstripping supply, and as I’d hoped riders were paying a premium, sometimes up to 4x what rides would normally cost. It was a financial windfall – but it was all taking place in the middle of the night. I couldn’t turn away from these rates, making so much money so easily essentially running a shuttle from campus to nearby hotels, and I kept driving. When my wife woke up at 3 AM, saw I wasn’t home, and called me, I had a passenger in the car and bumped her to voicemail. I called her back to tell her I was still driving, had many passengers still in my queue to get to, and had to go. She was, to put it mildly, less than thrilled about me unexpectedly staying out all night. I ultimately made $1,000 revenue that weekend, but the stress on my wife (and admittedly the wear on me too) caused us to more clearly negotiate the rules of engagement for night driving. (The net result is that I rarely do it, partly because I don’t want the risk of someone from the party-crowd throwing up in the car.)

Around the time I transitioned from rider-only to driving, Lyft had marketed themselves successfully, to me and many others, as the “driver-friendly platform” and was also looking better than Uber because Lyft at least wasn’t dealing with charges of rampant corporate misogyny. For almost a year I didn’t even look into driving for Uber, I was content to be Lyft-only and felt a little morally-smug about it, if I’m being honest. Of course I didn’t need the income, driving was only a side-hustle, and I was a newbie who didn’t really know much about either company. Lyft, when I started, showed the driver a transparent view into the financials of each ride, with a breakdown of what the rider paid, what cut Lyft took, and what was left for the driver. After a few months when looking at the payment details of a particular ride, I noticed that Lyft was no longer showing what the rider paid, only my portion of the fare. This seemed anathema to the “driver-friendly” marketing position Lyft had taken, and I did a quick Google search about the topic.

This led me to an article about an internet forum that serves as the virtual water-cooler for the rideshare industry, UberPeople, and I read stories from many drivers about how Lyft is a sub-par competitor to Uber, pays less, has less transparency, has inferior technology and apps, and is overall derisively referred to as “pink Uber” since Uber’s color scheme is mostly black and Lyft’s is mostly pink. These stories resonated – Lyft does frequently give me pickups 18 minutes away, doesn’t pay anything for the time and mileage to get there, then it turns out the ride is 2 miles and results in a minimum fare payout (about $3.50)! These drivers were very clear-eyed about the situation; both companies will try to squeeze as much out of drivers as they can, but if you’re serious about making any money doing this, Uber has the rider volume and a better compensation system, and Lyft is only to be used opportunistically when Uber is not busy.

I signed up for Uber, and everything from the onboarding process to the way the app works just seemed a bit more polished than Lyft. Since signing up to drive with Uber I’ve been doing what most drivers on the forum do, with a slight twist. Most drivers use Uber as their primary rideshare focus, and turn Lyft on only occasionally, or leave Lyft running in the background and simply ignoring Lyft requests when Uber is busy. (This hurts a driver metric called AR, Acceptance Rate, but everyone’s Lyft AR is very low and we all just ignore the frequent “you are hurting the community by missing ride requests” emails that Lyft is continually sending.) My tweak is to use a ride category my car qualifies for called “Lyft Lux” which is a more expensive ride in a nicer car – so I deliver normal rides on Uber (their higher tier requires commercial insurance I’m not serious enough to get) and opportunistically take Lux rides on Lyft. My take-home has gone up using this strategy, and I’m grateful to these internet strangers for the (frequently profane) education they’ve provided.

As I’ve been driving I’ve kept a notebook in the car to jot down anecdotes or thoughts for this article… Below are some of the things I felt worthy of recording but didn’t fit in cleanly to the narrative thus far.

I had a Lyft ride where the passenger named displayed as something like “GoGo Robert” and immediately after accepting I received a text with a message about how Robert may need some extra time getting in and out of the car. I later researched this ride and found out that it was from “GoGo Grandparent”, a company which has put some additional services catering to an elderly population around rideshares. The gentleman took a 30-minute ride, and reiterated the same phrases like “back when 79 cents got you a coffee at McDonalds” dozens of times.

GoGo Robert was much more able than other rides I’ve had; there are numerous organizations who use rideshares to transport people with various medical needs, most commonly from one appointment to another, but sometimes home from an appointment. Probably a half-dozen people have been unable to get in and out of the car on their own, and a couple of these were so obese that I was concerned they were going to damage my door leaning on it so hard, with no wheelchair or walker available. I blindly accepted these as a newbie driver, and it’s sometimes not obvious when a person is getting in the car how impaired they are, but when the situation is obviously risky I decline these rides on-the-spot and inform the rider (ideally a nurse or other caretaker is nearby) that I am not a medical transport and this is not what rideshare is for.

Once I picked up a rider on a slow Sunday morning, and her route was taking us directly past a Starbucks I frequent. She seemed casual and not in a rush, and I was in need of a coffee, so I asked her if she minded if I stopped at the Starbucks, and offered to get her something while I was there to make up for the delay. She asked for an iced coffee, easy enough, and I pulled into the parking lot. She then asked if I would get her a breakfast sandwich while I was there, since she hadn’t eaten yet that morning. I figured I was now getting a decent tip to make up for this, since her order added up to nearly $10, but I didn’t say anything about it and agreed to bring her sandwich. I completed her $8 ride and she never tipped, apparently thinking it was Free Starbucks Day – I suppose she was right.

Uber and Lyft have a different approach to rating passengers; the Lyft app rates all passengers 5-stars (perfect) at drop-off unless the driver takes action within about 2 seconds to provide a different rating. Uber makes the driver explicitly rate each rider, without the timeout. It’s my understanding that a driver with a rating below 4.6 is at risk of being removed from the Uber service, but it’s not clear if Lyft has a similar threshold for drivers, or if either platform has any threshold for removing passengers whatsoever. Both apps promise the driver that they will never be paired again with someone they rate 3 stars or lower.

I picked up some college students who were enamored with all aspects of the car and said “this is the future, and if the entry-level price comes down even just a little we could be the first generation to never drive on gas.”
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