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Uber passengers can now choose 'favorite drivers' in California

Image: Uber's logo at its office in Bogota
Uber's logo at its office in Bogota, Colombia.   -   Copyright  Luisa Gonzalez Reuters file
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Uber is letting users schedule rides with "favorite drivers" in California as part of a set of changes designed to put the ride-hailing company in line with a new state law about gig work.

The changes also mean that passengers will see a price range rather than a specific price before they request certain rides, Uber said Wednesday in an email sent to customers. The final price for nonpool rides will be calculated at the end of a trip based on time and distance traveled, the company said.

"These changes may take some getting used to," Uber warned in the email, "but our goal is to keep Uber available to as many qualified drivers as possible, without restricting the number of drivers who can work at a given time."

Uber, Lyft and similar services that use freelancers are reexamining their business models after a California law took effect Jan. 1 setting out definitions for who is a full-time employee and who is a contract worker — a potential threat to the gray area where many gig economy companies operate.

The law lays out a three-part test for whether someone is a full-time employee based on whether they perform tasks under a company's control, whether their work is outside the usual course of the business and whether they are "customarily engaged in an independently established trade."

Uber has said that despite the law, known as AB5, it can continue to classify drivers as contractors. It has begun offering more generous benefits, such as sick leave, and implementing a "guaranteed minimum earnings standard," while also arguing that drivers aren't "core" to its app-based business.

Some drivers are suing the company, asking a federal court to recognize their suit as a class action and declare that they are full-time employees entitled to certain benefits.

The company remains unprofitable since its initial sale of stock to the public last year, losing more than $1 billion in the quarter ending Sept. 30.

In the email to passengers, Uber said they would be able to add a driver in the app as a favorite after giving the driver a 5-star rating. When the passenger next requests a scheduled ride, the favorite drivers will have the opportunity to accept the reservation, Uber said.

Uber did not immediately respond to a request for additional information on the feature, such as whether it plans to monitor it for favoritism or bias based on race or gender.

Separate from the "favorite driver" feature, Uber has been giving drivers flexibility to reject certain rides. In an announcement last month, the company said drivers would be able to reject ride requests without penalties after seeing a trip's time, distance, destination and estimated fare — a change that the San Francisco Chronicle predicted would make it harder to get short rides or rides to particular neighborhoods.

Uber also said it was discontinuing some Uber Rewards benefits such as flexible cancellations for trips in California, without elaborating.

"We're actively working on new benefits for California riders, so stay tuned for future announcements," the company said in the email.