Uber makes changes to appease drivers, without raising fares

As Uber Technologies Inc. faces mounting pressure over its treatment of drivers, the company is extending a few gestures of goodwill, in the form of new features, worker-loyalty coupons, and faster payment options. Uber’s coders have been hard at work on the programs, which begin rolling out more widely this month. In several cities, drivers will be able to pause incoming requests from riders before completing their shift. To sign off in the current system, they must manually decline trip requests until they've dropped off their last customer. Passengers in more cities will start getting charged two minutes after their car arrives to better compensate drivers while they wait. The company had been experimenting with shorter times in some cities and will expand it to a dozen more this month. While on the road, drivers can check Uber's app for gas prices at nearby stations and search for cheaper options. The San Francisco company said in the future, it could negotiate with gas stations to offer discounts in exchange for promotions within the app. Waze, Google's navigation app that's popular among Uber drivers, similarly shows gas prices and offers coupons. The changes show Uber, valued at nearly $68 billion after its latest investment, is looking to appease both sides of its marketplace: riders and drivers. In January, Uberslashed fares in most U.S. cities, a change unpopular with many drivers. The company has been searching for ways to win over drivers without increasing prices. Travis Kalanick, the company's chief executive officer, promised shareholders that Uber would become profitable in North America by the second quarter of this year, an achievement it said it has reached in the U.S. and Canada. Meanwhile, the company raised $3.5 billion from Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund last week to help fund aggressive expansion in Asia. Harry Campbell, who writes a popular blog about Uber, said the changes don't address drivers' top priorities. They want higher fares and the option for passengers to tip inside the app, he said. Uber agreed as part of a proposed $100 million settlement in California and Massachusetts to let drivers solicit cash tips, but workers have said in complaints with the court that the proposals don't go far enough. While the upcoming changes may not put drivers' biggest complaints to rest, Campbell said they should have a positive impact. "They're definitely going to add up to slowly benefiting drivers," he said. "These are features, though, that I think make a lot of sense for drivers but also Uber. I call them low-hanging fruit." Two of the additions bring Uber in line with what Lyft Inc., the second-biggest U.S. ride-hailing provider, already offers. Uber said it now gives drivers an option to get paid immediately anywhere in the U.S. It started testing the service a few months ago in San Francisco. Drivers in more than a dozen U.S. cities this week will also be able to input their destinations, like they can with Lyft, to avoid getting paired with passengers going in a different direction. Uber is testing the destination option in China and India as well. Uber offers a discount program for active drivers in a few cities to get cheaper rides when they're off the clock. The company said it has more than 250 support centers, called Uber Greenlight, to answer drivers' questions and give them guidance in person. By Eric Newcomer/Bloomberg

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