Maureen Dowd

Driven to distraction by Uber

An Uber logo shown on a vehicle in San Francisco, California on May 7, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS 
An Uber logo shown on a vehicle in San Francisco, California on May 7, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS 

On a reporting expedition to Los Angeles recently, I realised I could stop renting cars. I would never again have to brave the LA freeway behind the wheel.

I would never have to obsess, like the characters in the Saturday Night Live skit, "The Californians", about taking the 101 to the 110 and Canyon View Drive over to San Vincente to the 10, then switching over to the 405 North and getting dumped out onto Mulholland.

I had Uber.

Even in the land of movie stars, you could feel like a movie star when your Uber chauffeur rolled up. Standing in front of the Sunset Tower Hotel, I tapped my Uber app and saw five little cars swarming around my location. But, suddenly, they scattered in the opposite direction. I stood in the driveway, perplexed. Finally, a car pulled up, and the driver waved me in.

"Do you know why no one wanted to pick you up?" he asked. "Because you have a low rating." I was shocked. Blinded by the wondrous handiness of Uber, I had missed the fact that while I got to rate them, they got to rate me back.

Revealing that I had only 4.2 stars, my driver continued to school me. "You don't always come out right away," he said, sternly, adding that I would have to work hard to be more appealing.

Uber began to feel less like a dependable employee and more like an irritated boyfriend.

I know Uber has the image of an obnoxious digital robber baron, a company that plays dirty tricks and proves that convenience "makes hypocrites of us all", as John Naughton put it in The Guardian, noting that its very name has connotations of Nietzschean superiority.

But it is a boon for women out on their own - unless you get a driver who harasses you and knows where you live. (After a driver allegedly raped a New Delhi passenger in December, Uber introduced an in-app emergency button in India.)

What I had loved about Uber was that, unlike in every other aspect of my high-tech world, I didn't feel judged. My worth wasn't being measured by clicks, likes, hits, views, re-tweets, hashtags, Snaps, thumbs-up or repins.

Except then I learnt that sitting in a Uber car was pretty much like sitting in my office: How much have you developed your audience? How much have you been shared? How much have you engaged your reader? Are you trending?

I was trending on Uber, all right, and not in a good way. I had avoided Lyft not only because of that pink moustache, but because I had heard that you were encouraged to sit up front with drivers and give them fist-bumps.

But, now, instead of quietly sitting in the back seat of my Uber and checking my phone or reading the paper, I had to start working to charm.

"Your husband likes oysters?" I enthused to one woman driving me in San Francisco.

"What are the kids up to this summer?" I chirped to another.

It was starting to have the vibe of friending, liking and sharing on Facebook, and that always gives me acid flashbacks to the 1980s when I was forced to go to my brother's house and watch slides of his wedding.

Finally, my nephew explained that I didn't need to grovel or gush. I simply needed to say, as I got out of the car: "Five for five."

If I promised to give them five stars - even in the Wild West of Uber X, where the drivers often seem so unfamiliar with the local terrain it's as though they've arrived from Mars - they would give me five stars.

Bribery. Lies. Cover-up. My Uber app turns out to have all the usual Washington vices.

An article in Business Insider advised giving an extra cash tip and not passing gas if you want a five-star rating.

Coming from a family of Irish maids, I had been looking forward to the concierge democracy, where we could all be masters of Downton Abbey, buttled by drones and summoning staff by just touching our smartphones.

As The Wall Street Journal recently reported, "There's a Uber for everything now. Washio is for having someone do your laundry, Sprig and SpoonRocket cook your dinner and Shyp will mail things out so you don't have to brave the post office. Zeel delivers a massage therapist (complete with table). Heal sends a doctor on a house call, while Saucey will rush over alcohol."

There is also Luxe, which uses GPS to offer a personal parking valet dressed in a blue uniform who will meet you at your destination and park your car for you.

But they'll no doubt all have mutually insured destruction rating systems, too, so Saucey will reveal how politely I grab my bottle of Grey Goose.

I've only yanked my rating up a tenth of a point in the last two weeks. I'm hoping Uber's self-driving cars will like me more.

But somehow I think robots will be even more judgmental.