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Area Uber drivers unpack the technology app's local impact 

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On October 20, the smartphone-centric ridesharing service Uber made headlines around the world. Its automated driver system, Otto, controlled a truck along a 120-mile route from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs, carrying a 50,000-can payload of Budweiser. It's an unusual story not just because it involves the slow introduction of cars driven by computers, but because Uber doesn't really make headlines in the Springs.

The Luddites among us may not even fully understand the easy functionality of the GPS-guided smartphone app. It summons a car and driver at the touch of a button, automatically charging the cost of the ride to a credit card.

Since Uber was founded in 2009, it's caused a fair share of controversy. In major taxi markets like New York City, it has drawn ire from cab drivers' unions. Many major cities like Austin, Texas, and Portland, Oregon, have banned the service, pending regulatory legislation in the case of the former.

But the Springs hasn't seen high-profile regulatory legislation. Things have remained pretty quiet here.

"I don't see a change as far as dispatch calls," says Sandie Blackmon, dispatch communications manager for Springs Cab. "Some of the airport workers do, but as far as our street calls being dispatched. ... I've not seen a change at all, really."

Fred Hair, general manager for Yellowcab in Colorado Springs, says that business has become more scarce for his company, but not because of Uber. Rather, he says that it recently became much easier to start a taxi company in Colorado, referring to the 2013 Colorado Supreme Court decision to allow Mile High Cab to form in Denver.

"Fifteen percent of the old day stuff goes to [other companies]," Hair says. "We can assume at least a portion of that went to Uber." Both Yellowcab and Springs Cab have introduced ride-booking apps to compete with the convenience of ridesharing services.

That said, it's hard to say exactly how much of an impact Uber has had on the Springs market. The company is notoriously touchy with the press — senior VP of business Emil Michael made headlines in November 2014 after suggesting a team of researchers be formed to run smear campaigns against journalists critical of the company. In any case, they opted not to respond to inquiries made by the Indy for this story over the course of the past month.

Rival ridesharing service Lyft did respond to inquiries but was unable to provide specific numbers for how much business they're doing in the Springs. Their press contact was able to say by email that they've "increased rides by 3.5 times and doubled the number of drivers in Colorado Springs," quoting a total of 315,000 drivers nationwide.

Which, of course means nothing without knowing how many drivers they had here to begin with. (Yeah, thanks for the ride, guys.)

All this makes it challenging to say just how big an impact Uber has had in the Springs. So sans meaningful statistics, we opted to chat with three past and present Uber drivers who've worked in the area to learn more about life on the smart road — from a driver's perspective — these days.

For some, ride-sharing services have been a big employment opportunity. During April 2016, Amanda Thibault was in the midst of a divorce. Her three kids were spending the summer with their grandparents.

"I was looking for something to do that would occupy my time, but would also give me some benefit as well," she says. "It just seemed like a good opportunity to make the extra cash to pay off all of my debt so that when I got divorced, I was literally getting a fresh start in life."

During the week, she stayed busy driving in and around the Springs, getting much of her business downtown and near Fort Carson. On the weekends, she says she branched out and traveled farther.

"I was open to go anywhere and everywhere — all over the state, it didn't matter to me," she says. As a military spouse, she has had the opportunity to travel, but there's a big difference between that life and exploring the highways and byways. She even learned a lot about the less-well-trod parts of the Springs. She also cites the faces that show up in her rear view mirror as a draw to the job.

"You just get to meet a bunch of different types of people, from all walks of life," she says. She loves people, so she found the heavy social element of the job outright entertaining. Though not every customer was a joy.

"I have had my fair share of crazies who are not fun to deal with," she admits, "but overall, it's been a great experience."

Thibault says she had far more problems with the software than the people. She had very little instruction in how to use the app when she started driving for Uber, and most of what she's learned, she taught herself.

"I wish that Uber had given me some better direction on how to use their app, or even maybe have someone ride along with me to help familiarize me with how the process works," she says. "If there was an issue where the app shut down, whether I lost signal or not, it would be nice for them to have some sort of outreach [or tech support]." She also wishes she had more information on the best times and areas to work when she started out.

For new drivers, Thibault has some advice regarding ever-tempting fare surges — times and locations when Uber fares go up by as little as 130 percent and as much as 500 percent, designed to draw more drivers to a high-demand situation. She says it's better not to make a beeline for surges when they come up. Ten other drivers will also be rushing in.

"By the time you get there, that surge is going to be gone," she says. Instead, she suggests hanging around the outskirts of a surge area, picking up fares from suddenly-empty territory.

Though Thibault left Colorado Springs in July for Oceanside, California, shortly after her divorce was finalized, she continues to drive for Uber while raising her three kids.

For CU Denver student Jonathan Sulzbach, Uber was more a stopgap than a life-changer. While studying for his MS in recording arts, Sulzbach was working at an electronics store. But balancing his schedule between passing classes and making money was challenging. On a friend's advice, Sulzbach took up Uber to bolster his finances and make his schedule easier. That was in August of 2015, just before semester began.

The money helped. Sulzbach reports making around $800 a month when he was driving actively. But it didn't do his schedule any favors.

"You have to deal with the demands of your customers or you won't make money," he explains. "The demands of your customers dictate when you do or do not drive."

He says he did a lot of driving in the mornings and evenings, driving 10 to 20 patrons on a work night.

"It's usually short-distance get-guy-from-bar-to-bar or get person from bar back home or get person from work to home," he says of night drives. "If I'm driving in the morning, it's usually going to be three or four really long drives." He says he drove a lot of people to DIA in the morning, or across wide sections of Denver.

Sulzbach has spent most of his life in the Springs, though — he's a UCCS alumnus — but he says he only drove for Uber here a handful of times.

"It's not as lucrative here as in Denver," he says. He has his hypotheses, as one does. He suggests that our lower population density might be why he saw fewer fares, as well as the fact — or at least the perception — that free parking is more readily available in the Springs.

"I think it's also because there's a lot more businessmen in Denver," he says. "The fact is that getting an Uber, getting a taxi, does cost money." It's plausible, he suggests, that people in the Springs see it more as a luxury than folks in Denver do.

All told, the biggest challenge he faced was the customers he categorizes as "drunks and dicks." He also says he had trouble with the app-based nature of the job at times, especially when fares failed to note their surge pricing. It should go without saying that when someone ignores a 5x surge on a drive that usually costs $20, things get heated fast. Especially because the driver can't stop or change a fare charge.

That said, Sulzbach found it to be a good source of supplementary income, as well as a good way to learn the layout of a new city and talk to a wide range of people. Currently, Sulzbach continues to pursue his MS. He stopped driving for Uber after around eight months with the service, but plans to start driving again soon.

click to enlarge Though there are differences between the Lyft app, left, and the Uber app, right, the fundamental service doesn't change much.
  • Though there are differences between the Lyft app, left, and the Uber app, right, the fundamental service doesn't change much.

Springs resident Rob Bourgeois, though, has little good to say about Uber. Bourgeois had substantial student and credit card debt. He took up Uber as a primary job in September 2015, on a referral from a friend. At the time, he did not own a car, but Uber has standing partnerships with financial institutions to get prospective drivers behind the wheel.

"I got myself a Prius for $19,000 and started driving within a week," he says. Unfortunately, Bourgeois' car was financed by Westlake Financial Services, a Los Angeles-based institution. He was given a loan at a 16 percent interest rate, with $522 monthly payments.

"There was not a chance in hell I was going to be able to pay that back, but I didn't know that," he says. "I was blinded by false promises from Uber on what kind of living I would be able to make."

Westlake made headlines in October 2015 when the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau fined the company $44 million for "calling under false pretenses and using phony caller ID information, falsely [threatening] to refer borrowers for investigation or criminal prosecution, and illegally [disclosing] information about debts to borrowers' employers, friends, and family."

In a piece released in late November 2015, Observer business and tech described Westlake as "known for its expensive subprime financing programs." A Bloomberg Technology article from May calls leases offered through Uber "expensive, even predatory, compared with leases available to drivers with good credit."

Or, as Boston University business school lecturer Mark Williams told Bloomberg, "The terms, the way they're proposed, are predatory and are very much driven toward profiting off drivers rather than to facilitate an increase in drivers."

Bourgeois started out making enough money to get by, at least — around $750 in the first week he says. But he calls that his high-water mark. He also had difficulty with keeping his driver score up — customers rate drivers after every ride, and Bourgeois says he saw a lot of four-out-of-five ratings.

"If you drop below a 4.5, you start to get disciplinary measures, and they could actually remove you from the system," he says. "A 4 is a good rating, unless you're Uber, apparently."

As his score slipped, Bourgeois saw fewer and fewer fares coming his way, whether driving in the Springs or Denver. Ultimately, Bourgeois gave up driving for Uber in June. His car was repossessed in September.

"End of the day, what I have from Uber is a lot of bad experiences, a couple of really good ones and $10,000 of debt for a car I ended up losing," he says. "I would not recommend Uber to anyone trying to make a living."

But for those just looking for a cheap lift, the generally quick-to-respond, competitively priced service still has its draws. Perhaps one day these services will ditch the human element for 100 percent automated drivers, leaving old-school cab companies with a monopoly on small-dose face-to-face interaction. Of course, Uber and Lyft won't be telling us if it happens.

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