GoGoGrandparent is a new startup with a seemingly wholesome mission: It wants to make it easier for seniors, specifically those without smartphones, to use Uber. But drivers don’t see a penny from the company, and ultimately feel shortchanged for doing more work.

Twentysomethings Justin Booogaard and David Lung created the company after Booogaard’s grandmother, Betty, wanted to hail an Uber, but couldn’t since she didn’t have a smartphone. The two bootstrapped a phone operator system to book a ride for her, and realized they might actually have a business.

Only a quarter of adults age 65 and older own smartphones, according to a Pew Research Center study. For Uber, this is an obvious barrier to entry, and the reason why GoGoGrandparent was founded.

It works like a taxi dispatch—seniors call the GoGoGrandparent phone number from their landline or dumb phone. Then, the company’s operators hail a car for the passenger using the Uber app, and inform the driver of any assistance they might need. After the call, the entire ride is negotiated through the app, and the passenger is sometimes none the wiser.

I first learned about GoGoGrandparent on the Uber driver subreddit, where drivers accused the company of violating Uber’s Terms of Service, and introducing a host of liability issues. One Uber driver told me that while he enjoys helping elderly passengers, he doesn’t approve of GoGoGrandparent’s so-called predatory tactics.

“They’re wedging themselves in between driver and rider, and making everything difficult for everyone involved. They charge the rider a premium for doing nothing, all they do is request an Uber ride for someone else,” he said in a Reddit PM.

There’s no direct line of communication between riders and drivers during pickup, he added. “If there’s an accident, who takes responsibility? Face it, Uber is not known for sticking up for their drivers, and if something happens, I bet GoGoGrandparent would disappear in a heartbeat.”

The startup was funded in 2016 by Y Combinator, which notoriously seeks tech fixes for the world’s biggest problems. Indeed, YC partner Geoff Ralston once praised GoGoGrandparent for “solving an important problem for an aging population.”

But how ethical is GoGoGrandparent, really? Superficially, it’s a classic middleman. The service charges a premium (13 percent commission per ride, plus a $1.80 “concierge fee”) to act like a conduit between passengers and Uber. The benefits of using GoGoGrandparent, as opposed to another shuttle service, are seemingly cost and availability.

After that, the details are hazy.

Despite assurances that operators “communicate, screen and supervise drivers” to ensure their customers’ safety, this isn’t technically possible. GoGoGrandparent can’t surveil the inside of an Uber car. Booogaard seemed hesitant when I asked him about this feature, telling me that GoGoGrandparent only monitors each trip on the Uber app. If a ride were going off-course, he said, operators could immediately intervene. Of course, there’s no way for GoGoGrandparent to immediately discern a detour from a disaster. The same goes for a rider changing their destination en route. Something like this doesn’t seem scalable if operators are fielding a large number of calls, either.

And for drivers, many of whom “ask to do this for free,” Booogaard claimed, the downsides are numerous. Some feel as if they’re doing more work for less pay; a concern that Uber tried to ameliorate with its UberASSIST program, an unpaid course that teaches them how to assist the elderly, or people with disabilities. To incentivize the program, Uber deducts only 15 percent from these rides, compared to 25 percent for normal trips. (Some drivers allege that UberASSIST charges them the normal rate, however.)

With GoGoGrandparent, this isn’t always the case. Booogaard told me that operators will first attempt to hail an UberASSIST, but if there aren’t any, they’ll call an UberX. GoGoGrandparent will sometimes ask drivers to walk passengers to their destination, or help them into their car—things drivers may be happy to do for UberASSIST pay, but less than willing for basic rates.

Responsibility in the event of an accident is another worry. GoGoGrandparent’s safety pledge links to Uber’s own damages terms. “If an accident occurs while an adult is in the car,” Booogaard said, the driver and passenger will be “protected by Uber and its insurance policies.” Any added liability that GoGoGrandparent introduces, then, is ultimately Uber’s problem.

“It’s not so much about pay as it is about all the extra liability…that can be presented for a ride that’s probably a half mile long and worth a dollar or two for the driver,” the Uber driver told me.

Uber did not respond to questions about its relationship with GoGoGrandparent. It’s still unclear whether the company’s business model is a violation of Uber’s Terms of Service.

Booogaard said he “met with and spoke with Uber,” however. While he couldn’t tell me how GoGoGrandparent interfaces with Uber’s platform, he compared the startup to other companies that use UberCENTRAL—a dashboard that allows partners (including senior centers) to hail rides on behalf of their customers. GoGoGrandparent does not have an account with UberCENTRAL.

“The whole thing screams of scam,” the driver added. “On top of everything else, they seem to be targeting the people who are most vulnerable.”

 

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