Figuring Out How The App Works, Giving The First Ride

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Very soon after turning on the Uber app on for the first time, it began beeping (as you saw in the video).  This indicated there was a ride hailing me. I learned quickly you have fifteen seconds to tap the screen and accept the ride before the opportunity goes away. Instead, I sat there for maybe five to ten minutes not accepting any rides but simply watching the app go off over and over again. It gave me a slot-machine kind of rush. It was exciting because it quickly became obvious there were a lot of people out there who wanted rides. But this was a test day. I didn’t want to accept any rides. I just wanted to watch. And learn.

The software that runs this app is quite remarkable, both for drivers and passengers.  You can download the rider apps in the Apple iTunes store or on Google Play. To get set up, you then register yourself on the app, provide your credit card and background info, and you are good to go.  These days, Uber does not send drivers a new phone with the Uber driver app already installed; you download the driver app directly to your smartphone once you are approved to drive.

The Uber software is sophisticated enough to understand that when a rider wishes to hail a driver the “submit” signal is sent out wirelessly to a nearby cellphone tower.  In matter of a few seconds, the signal bounces around the tower’s switching universe then probably back to Uber central in San Francisco or maybe to some sort of intermediate data center somewhere in the country. The system figures out which driver is located nearest to the rider by accessing each phone’s internal GPS directional coordinates. This all takes a few seconds. I know this because I was with a rider once had a rider who actually had not hailed me at all. He was standing next to me and set the process into motion while I watched him click "submit.”

Once he hit the button, it probably took about 10 seconds before the notification showed up on my phone.  More recently, I’ve observed this process to take two or three seconds. If the system determines that I am the closest party my cellphone will start to beep. It’s a long way away from the first Marconi wireless tower out on Cape Cod.

I once picked up a rider who worked for a company called SkyWorks in Woburn, MA. He told me his company, which I had seen off of I-93 before and thought was involved with some sort of airline-related work, actually makes equipment involved with the radio transmission of signals between cell phones. How about that!

So that was the test run. After sitting around and watching my like an excited gambler for a bit I felt good and headed home. The next step was to go out and actually do a ride in real time.  But, again, I was continuing to suffer the confidence breakdown that had plagued me each step of the way.  I continued to move in baby steps. This is how I was propelled forward to continue on with this journey.

I needed two weeks to chill from the test to build again the confidence to go out and give this a try. February 5, 2014 was judgement day. Around 1 pm, I decided to head out from Waltham down to Harvard Square to see if I could scrape up some business.

I parked on some street near the Square and turned on the app. Probably within a minute or so the thing went off.  I paused. Three cherries lined up. Moment of truth.  Scared shitless was I.

I plunged forth and tapped the screen.

The rider was nearby.  I remember picking him up and delivering him a few miles away at 2:13 pm. I was nervous as crap. I made $6.91. Well, not really because I had to pay for my own gas. And car maintenance. And my time spent. But still—how cool is that?  Money made from giving someone a ride.

I was so nervously green that I told the guy it was my first day. I remember he was very encouraging. Whew!  I gave a couple of rides that day, and everyone was super encouraging. They all said they thought this was a great thing I was doing. This helped ease the anxiety. We discussed the merits of Uber. They passed along good wishes and congratulations.

I got paid for this first ride along with the rest of them about a week later, on February 15.  $58.65.  Jackpot!