SINGAPORE: "You shouldn't have taken this exit! I haven't met a driver who would take this route to Pasir Panjang! It's not about the money, I'm already running late."
My second passenger on my first day as an Uber driver was furious about my lack of route knowledge.
Just an hour into my 12-hour shift and I was already questioning whether doing this full-time would be worth the hassle.
It was the day after last week’s massive MRT disruption, and there were plenty of people trying to book me as an Uber driver rather than risk trying to get to their destination by train. And with the previous night’s disruption in mind, some people seemed to be on edge.
Uber, a ride-matching app from California, works by having a passenger key in their location and destination. Available drivers then take the booking if they want.
My day began in relaxed style in the wee hours of the morning in a dimly-lit carpark in Serangoon. I was there to collect the keys to a Nissan Latio sedan from 32-year-old Jay, a fellow Uber driver.
As part of our agreement, I was to be her relief driver for a day and would use her car, which was covered under a commercial insurance scheme.
With that, I found myself cutting my teeth as a chauffeur to a myriad of clients.
My first booking came 15 minutes after I hit the road. Punggol resident San needed a lift to Paya Lebar Air Base.
I tried to get the conversation flowing during the 20-minute journey by asking if she was taking an Uber service because of the MRT disruption. She said that she’s a regular user.
"I stay in Punggol and during rush hours, like 7am to 9am, it's really difficult to get a taxi. My worst experience was when I waited for one hour on the road and there was no taxi. I tried to call but there was no cab. It was a really bad experience," she said.
She added that Uber was "always available", hence her preference for it.
"CREAMING OFF PROFITS"
While ride-matching apps seem to work for passengers, taxi drivers are unhappy about their popularity.
There have been calls for greater regulation of the industry to prevent such apps from "creaming off profits", as National Taxi Association advisor Ang Hin Kee put it.
Ranking high among their grievances are the cheaper rental rates - daily taxi rents range from S$75 to S$100 a day, whereas a car for Uber use can be had for as little as S$50 per day (although I paid S$150 as this was a one-off experiment rather than a regular arrangement).
There are also concerns that these newcomers are not required to obtain a vocational licence, unlike taxi drivers.
In response, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) has said it is studying further measures to ensure commuter interests are preserved when using these services. These include making it compulsory for such drivers to obtain a vocational license, and imposing stricter penalties for the improper use of private cars.
I asked San if she had any concerns over the perceived lower entry barriers for Uber drivers.
"You're on the road (and this) means you're licensed to drive. That's a minimum pre-requisite. Safety wise, I think it's like taking your friend's car. You're leaving your life in the hands of a friend. It's no different. I am still taking his car and I get to my destination," she said. "It doesn't mean that you have a cab license, you drive safely. I've met cab drivers who drive recklessly!"
In Singapore, Uber runs background checks on potential drivers before approving their application. The rest of the process to get started is very easy: all I had to do was register with my identification card and a driving licence. That was the green light for me to get going.
But is life as an Uber driver financially viable?
My basic fare was S$3.50, with an additional S$0.25 per minute and a S$0.50 per kilometre charge.
At those rates, I made a total of $85 from the 7 passengers I picked up during the day: not enough to cover the cost of renting the car plus petrol.
I was a lazy driver, though, and could have made much more. The app was pinging throughout my shift, and I could have easily reached S$200, which other Uber drivers told me is an average day’s taking for those who are willing to work hard.
And those who want to get behind the wheel can work efficiently, and according to their preferences. Unlike taxi drivers who have to cruise looking for fares, Uber drivers can only take bookings over the app. That means that they need only hit the road when there’s money to be made.
Once a booking is accepted by a driver, it cannot be cancelled – even though destinations will only be made known after the driver has picked up the passenger. This gives predictability about getting a ride, which many of my passengers said gave Uber an advantage over regular taxis.
"It's just more convenient for me. Taxi drivers choose where they want to go: You see a green sign coming, you get so excited, but they don't want to go where you want to go. It can get very frustrating," said David, who was travelling from Sembawang to Pasir Ris.
But while people seem to like the idea of Uber, they can be just as demanding as regular taxi passengers.
Even though I knew where I was going most of the time, and had a GPS for backup, I was hit by a constant barrage of instructions about what route to take by all my passengers. This added to my stress, and meant that I was happy to hand the car back to Jay at the end of the day.
Becoming a full-time Uber driver isn’t for me. I’ll stick to reporting. But it does have some appeal, as a way of making some extra money on a part-time basis.
For those with more drive though, the combination of Uber’s popularity and the ease right now of getting started means it could be a reasonably attractive full-time job.