Car Ownership v Uber

Car Ownership v Uber

It’s important to note that this is indeed a blog and as such the opinions are entirely Car Sleuth’s own, and the content herein shouldn’t be construed as anything other than that – opinions. 

I accept that it’s unfair to use the name “Uber” in the title of this blog as I recognise there are other ride-hailing apps available.  But let’s be honest, Uber today is the dominant player in the space.  And I also accept that I could be setting myself up for potential litigious, or even physical (gasp!), action against me as I write about the pros and cons of Uber. Yet I sincerely hope that no one nasty will come after me, be it in legalese or with a Prius-branded lithium-ion battery hurtling towards my head. So now that I’ve gotten that rather tedious stuff out of the way, I can focus on the main subject: Car ownership v Uber…

Putting last year’s unsavoury news surrounding their since-ousted CEO aside, I really don’t have a problem with Uber. Quite the contrary, in fact. Since landing onto our London streets just a few years ago, using your smart phone to order a cab is seriously convenient. And I’ll even throw in that it’s kinda fun. Following your car on your phone as it arrives to your chosen pick-up point is definitely cool. It adds an element of a “personal-touch” while also providing a welcomed sense of relief: Knowing that you have a car coming to collect you, rather than waiting for a classic black cab to miraculously appear is really a nice feeling, particularly if late at night and you’ve taken down just one too many drinks. So this is all pretty good. But where I struggle is when I hear from young families that they plan to do away with their current car and replace it with Uber as their main mode of vehicular transport. While it is indeed admirable, especially from an environmental standpoint, I fear that these families are losing sight of the benefits of car ownership.

To get the ball rolling (engines revving?) on the pros and cons of car ownership v Uber one would likely start by doing a simple study of running-costs. This makes sense, to a degree, and a team from the University of Texas has saved us a lot of hassle by creating a pretty nifty calculator (http://www.rideordrive.org/calculator) that will figure it all out for you, including a “how much is your time worth to you” component (unsurprisingly, this last metric ends up being pretty subjective).  I tried their calculator myself, and it worked out that if my time is worth anything less than $50/hr then I should own my own car, if above $51/hr it made sense to ride-share. Give it a go…

But one component that isn’t measured is what I would call the “Flexibility” component. How many times have you forgotten something at the “big” Sainsbury’s that’s too far to walk to but wouldn’t think twice about jumping into your car to make the ~15min round trip to pick up that forgotten ingredient? Sure, Uber could work in this instance but if you’re slightly behind schedule with guests soon arriving the thought of dealing with (an often late!) Uber doesn’t help the stress levels. Or, how about when your kids have back-to-back activities on a Saturday and you have limited time to do that one errand that you thought you could sandwich in between? Again, an Uber might work. But in the event your driver opts for a more attractive “Surge” fare elsewhere and thereby strands you (and your kids!) you’d be pretty annoyed. Watch the Parent of the Year award drive right on by…

A second component that is missing is what I’ll call the “Comfort” component, and it’s really quite simple: Any time I’m sitting in an Uber for over 12mins, I really start to wish I was just about anywhere else. Why 12mins (and surely this is subjective!)? Well for me, after 12mins I start to feel as if I’m invading someone else’s space. Uber drivers take the time to personalise their cars to make them as comfortable to themselves as possible. And why wouldn’t they? After all the car is their work place, or their own “environment”. And this is precisely the problem I have – the longer I spend in their environment the more I want to be in my environment which leads to me feeling pretty anxious (gasp again!). At this juncture I know that readers will highlight the benefits of using the downtime in an Uber as the perfect occasion to catch up on email, read the news etc and I get it.  But the fact that this is undertaken in an environment that is so clearly not my own makes me feel that much more unsettled.

So how can you value the “Flexibility” component? You can’t – it’s impossible. And how can you value the “Comfort” component? You can’t do that, either. But the next time you throw a dinner party and you know that forgotten ingredient really would’ve made a difference, give some food for thought (ahem) as to how the flexibility of owning your own car would’ve helped. Or the next time you’re in an Uber for longer than 12 minutes and becoming increasingly agitated, be sure not to get angry at the driver – you’re in his car, not yours.

Keep calm and drive on,

Car Sleuth

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