The torrid controversy engulfing Chinese ride-hailing services

Yang Jian
Some cab drivers are using air conditioning as a weapon against rising costs and dwindling incomes. Will robot taxis be the salvation of the future?
Yang Jian
The torrid controversy engulfing Chinese ride-hailing services

Long lines of private cars, taxis and ride-hailing cars at an entry to Shanghai Yan'an Road Elevated Highway.

You're sweating in a taxi on a scorching summer day. What do you do if a penny-pinching cab driver refuses to turn on the air conditioning or says cool air will cost you extra?

In a recent incident in Jiangxi Province, a passenger complained online that her ride-hailing driver asked for extra payment to turn on the air conditioner.

"The car was like an oven," the passenger said. "I asked the driver to turn on the air conditioning. He demanded extra payment. I refused, so he left it off."

In a similar incident in neighboring Anhui Province, a passenger surnamed Luo posted video footage on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, showing a driver refusing to turn on the air conditioner and insulting her after she asked.

Luo, a junior college student, was using a discounted ride to get to school when the outside temperature was 36 degrees Celsius.

"The driver said the fare was too low to turn on the air conditioner," she said. "When I asked why, he started insulting my education and school."

The online-hailing platform later suspended the driver for three days and provided Luo with compensation vouchers.

Another passenger shared a photo showing a notice in the car demanding an additional 10 yuan (US$1.37) for air conditioning, with a separate payment QR code attached.

The torrid controversy engulfing Chinese ride-hailing services
Ti Gong

A notice in a ride-hailing car demanding an additional 10 yuan for air conditioning

Every summer, similar stories surface, but they have become more frequent this year as China's ride-hailing market is rapidly running out of room for expansion and drivers are struggling to maintain their incomes.

The number of licensed ride-hailing drivers surged from 2.9 million at the end of 2020 to 6.8 million by March 2024, while public demand for such services increased only by about 45 percent, according to the National Ride-Hailing Regulatory Information Platform.

Many drivers complain that using air conditioning adds at least 20 yuan to daily fuel costs, which can mean more than 1,000 yuan extra every month. Wang, a ride-hailing driver in Shanghai since 2015, explained the cost concerns.

"At current fuel prices, it costs about 0.8 yuan per kilometer with the air conditioner on," he said. "And I only make about 0.4 yuan per kilometer after the platform I work for deducts its commission. I try to avoid using the air conditioner unless it's extremely hot or passengers specifically request it."

He added, "I think charging extra for air conditioning is reasonable, similar to how taxis used to levy a fuel surcharge when fuel prices were high."

Another driver noted that using the air conditioner increases fuel consumption by about 20 percent.

"If I drive 300 kilometers a day, it costs an extra 50 yuan," he told Shanghai Daily. "Electric car drivers face reduced battery life, which means more frequent charging and fewer rides."

On the other hand, some drivers point out that using the air conditioner can lead to better ratings from passengers, which in turn can bring more orders from a ride-hailing platform.

"Turning off air conditioning can lead to complaints, which affects our ratings and income," a driver told Shanghai Daily in a WeChat group of over 400 domestic ride-hailing drivers. "Besides, we drivers cannot withstand high temperatures any more than riders can."

The torrid controversy engulfing Chinese ride-hailing services
Ti Gong

One passenger complained that a ride-hailing driver used plastic wrap to isolate his driver's seat, leaving the passengers in the back seat without air conditioning.

A customer service representative from ride-hailing platform Didi said the platform requires drivers to comply with reasonable passenger requests, which include using air conditioning or opening windows.

"Charging extra for air conditioning is not allowed because the fare already includes it," the staff spokesman said.

Most drivers who violate the rule after customer complaints sustain a penalty of at least two days' suspension.

Transport authorities in some cities, such as Beijing and Anyang in central China's Henan Province, have warned ride-hailing platforms and taxi companies to avoid such situations.

According to the nation's "Taxi Service Standards," updated in 2021, drivers should adjust windows and air conditioning according to passengers' wishes.

Drivers form a contractual relationship with passengers and the platform for whom they work. Providing air conditioning is within reasonable service expectations, making extra charges for it unreasonable, lawyer Ji Yali from Beijing Zhongyin Law Firm explained to China Central Television.

Ji said regulations should also lower excessive platform commissions to support the interests of both drivers and passengers.

The debate over air conditioning fees highlights a broader issue of cost-sharing in the ride-hailing industry.

While passengers expect basic comforts like air conditioning, drivers face the financial pinch of platform commissions and fuel costs, according to Zheng Xiang, a professor at Beijing Jiaotong University.

"Drivers prefer not to use the air conditioner due to the costs involved," Zheng said. "Platforms should help mitigate these costs, possibly through subsidies on hot days or other forms of financial support."

The torrid controversy engulfing Chinese ride-hailing services

An automated driving taxi of Baidu's Apollo Go is operating in Wuhan.

As the ride-hailing market becomes increasingly competitive, maintaining high service standards is crucial for retaining passengers and ensuring fair compensation for drivers, he added.

In the central Chinese city of Wuhan, Baidu's Apollo Go, also known as "Run Carrot," has seen an explosive increase in orders for its driverless taxis.

Each vehicle now completes over 20 orders a day, matching the average daily workload of a human taxi driver. Wuhan residents give the vehicles a 4.9 out of 5 rating on the Apollo Go app.

The trend is not isolated to Wuhan. Autonomous driving technology is advancing rapidly, and experts predict that fully automated driving could become mainstream within the next decade.

A ride-hailing driver told Shanghai Daily he fears losing his job to these "robots."

"I'll have no choice but to 'lie flat,' which feels like a liberation from my current situation," he said, referring to the trend of taking a break from relentless work.

Similar issues are being faced by ride-hailing drivers around the world. In the United States, drivers for Uber and Lyft report decreasing incomes due to high competition and commission rates.

Many drivers struggle with maintenance and fuel costs, worsened by the need for air conditioning in an era when climate change is producing fiercer, longer heat waves.

In Europe, drivers face tough competition and strict regulations. In London, the influx of ride-hailing services has led to oversaturation, forcing drivers to work longer hours for less money. Regulatory pressures add to operational costs, further squeezing driver incomes.

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