To me, Uber is the pinnacle of economic innovation. It harnessed technology, the app revolution, and used it to improve efficiency and provide a new service. The service is designed to deliberately overcome a classic economic problem, asymmetric information. And the pricing model is based on sound economic principles. It is at the forefront of a technology driven revolution that economists are calling “the sharing economy.” Similar services include Lyft, AirBnB, and Craigslist.
Uber, at its core, is simply an app. You download it to your smartphone from an app store, and then you give it some basic information, including a credit card number. Then, whenever you need a ride you use a map to tell the app where you want to be picked up and you specify the level of service you want – a private car, a taxi, a black car, or an SUV. The app takes care of the rest. It dispatches a driver and gives you his or her name, user rating, contact information, and estimated time of arrival.
When the driver arrives the app alerts you and you can head outside and hop in. All you need to do is tell the driver where you are headed and he or she will take you. Then when you arrive at your destination you just get out. No fumbling for change in your pocket or listening to the taxi driver grumble about you wanting to use a credit card. The app, which already has your credit card information, automatically bills you based on level of service, distance traveled, and time elapsed. All of this information, including a map, is e-mailed to you. I’ve used these e-mails in the past to compile invoices for my business trip expenses at my old job. Gratuity and any taxes are automatically subsumed into the rate. The app simply asks you to rate the driver, out of five stars, and provide any comments or feedback.
Asymmetric information is a classic economic challenge. It is when the two sides of a transaction – the buyers and sellers, demanders and suppliers, consumers and providers, whatever you want to call them – do not have the same information about the product or service. For example, the used car market suffers considerably from asymmetric information. The dealers know a car’s history and if it’s a lemon, but the buyers don’t have this information, which saps demand and can lead to less than optimal prices on vehicle sales.
Uber has solved this problem for the chauffeured rides-on-demand market. Not only does the rider have to rate the driver, but the driver has to rate the rider. Riders and drivers both have average ratings out of five stars, which are revealed to both parties when the service is called for. Riders can decline a driver with a poor rating, and drivers can decline service to rude riders with a poor rating. This symmetrical access to information improves the efficiency of the market and helps secure the fairest price for service possible. It also ensures quality. I’ve taken many uber-clean Ubers in which I’ve been offered a small bottle of water or a nice sucking candy, at no additional cost.
Pricing is another strong feature of Uber. Accurate prices take into account both real-time supply and demand for a service. But sometimes prices are fixed and only take into account one side of the curve. For example, one problem with certain popular “hot lanes” on interstates is that they only take into account demand. The price goes up when the normal lanes are congested, but it doesn’t take into account how congested the express lanes are. When the express lanes are also jammed this has the effect of unnecessarily attracting more vehicles, worsening the congestion. And when the fast lanes are empty the prices are not optimized to attract more vehicles, improving traffic flow for the normal lanes.
Uber, on the other hand, has base rates for distance and time traveled. However, when demand is high or there are not a lot of cars available, they implement a surge pricing scheme which multiplies the price of the ride based on the real-time state of the market. At first this pricing scheme got Uber some bad press due to lack of transparency, but now that they have improved the app to make the user aware of the price it is a great system. The people who are most willing to pay for the service, as expressed by price, are most efficiently matched with the drivers most willing to provide the ride.
I’ve never seen surge pricing this high, but it only reflects real-time market conditions. It could have been during a bad storm when no one wanted to be out driving, or during a high-demand period, like New Year’s Eve
The app is sleek. The pricing system is fair, and the its rating system overcomes classic economic challenges to ensure as free of a market as possible. So what’s the problem? What’s all the fuss with Uber about? The problem with Uber and the sharing economy is that everyone who has their hands in the traditional economic structure is throwing a fit. Uber’s success is partially at the expense of traditional taxi drivers. And taxi services are heavily regulated in most cities around the world. This is leading to taxi commissions throwing up roadblocks (some literal, most legal) all across the world. However, regulated taxi markets are a relic of an over-regulated past. Like most markets, regulation and government intervention benefits few and passes on unnecessary costs and under-service to most. I can certainly understand why taxi commissions are protesting. The livelihood of their beneficiaries is being completely upended. However, innovation, invention, and new technology, are the engine of economic growth. When government policies suppress the urge for unnecessary regulation and allow innovation to flourish economic prosperity reaches the most people – even the disrupted taxi drivers, once they adjust their service or find another job.