SAN DIEGO — Uber passengers can now get a more spacious ride and a less talkative driver — if they're willing to shell out a few extra dollars.
The ride-hailing giant launched "comfort" rides in dozens of cities Tuesday. Riders are guaranteed 36 inches of legroom in "newer" cars — meaning those that are under five years old — and they can request a preferred air temperature. Riders can also use the app to tell drivers they don't want to chat, avoiding what some consider an awkward exchange.
Uber is responding to requests from business travelers and others who say they just want to work or rest quietly when they're on their way to the airport.
"It's a way to set up an expectation up front...it takes some guess work out of the process," said Aydin Ghajar, senior product manager at Uber.
In the early days of ride-hailing, when drivers for Uber and its main U.S. rival Lyft began picking up riders in their personal cars, riders were often chatty, asking the drivers lots of questions.
"It was so new and innovative that a lot of people were curious about other things they (drivers) did," said Harry Campbell, founder of The Rideshare Guy, a blog and online community for drivers. "Over the years, it's gotten more transactional."
Uber rolled out a "quiet mode" for Uber Black — its premium car service — in May, which left some drivers feeling like robots.
"Some drivers like it, they don't want to have to look at social cues," Campbell said. "Other drivers feel that it's a little dehumanizing...I do feel like in our society, everything is turning into an app, and we're losing the lost art of conversation."
Comfort rides cost 20% to 40% more for time and distance charges than standard Uber X rides.
The move could help Uber boost revenue, which could nudge the company closer to profitability.
"I think it would help maybe to boost those numbers up a little bit and maybe give some of the analysts on Wall Street something more to hang their hat on to remain bullish on the stock, based on the fact that the company still is not profitable," said Daniel Morgan, vice president of Synovus Trust Company.
Uber has yet to turn a profit and lost $1 billion in the first quarter of 2019. Executives have said it could take years to make money.
It's unknown whether the benefits offered by Uber Comfort will be enough to convince riders to cough up more cash. A five-year-old car is not really "newer," it's more "middle aged," said Morgan. And at 6 feet, 5 inches tall, the additional legroom wouldn't really be enough for Morgan — but it might be sufficient for people who are average height, he said.
"They might try it once and see if it's that much more of an improvement and worth it," Morgan said. "If they can't deliver it and it's not that much more comfortable, then it's like well, I'm not really going to pay up for it."
Uber declined to provide an average age for its drivers' cars, and said age requirements for vehicles vary by city.
Uber's smaller rival Lyft offers "Lyft Lux" rides, which are in high-end sedans or SUVs with leather seats and more legroom. Lux cars are driven by drivers with a 4.85-star rating or above, and cost more than a standard Lyft ride or the company's less-expensive Shared ride. But riders do not have the option of requesting a quiet, conversation-free ride.
Uber already has some premium products that cost more than the basic Uber X. For example, Uber Black includes high-end cars driven by professional drivers and offers a "quiet mode." Families or groups of six can choose Uber XL to get a van or SUV. Uber Select connects riders with highly rated drivers. On the other end of the spectrum, Uber Pool is the cheapest option, but riders have to share the car with passengers going to other destinations.
Uber says its Uber Black product will generally cost more than Uber Comfort, but specific pricing will vary by city.
Drivers who qualify for can make about 20% more on an Uber Comfort ride than Uber X ride, said Uber spokesman Steve Imm. But some drivers earned less during an Uber Comfort pilot, because their cars qualified for the pricier Uber Select or Uber XL options, and they couldn't easily opt out of the Uber Comfort option, Campbell said. Drivers will now be able to opt out of Uber Comfort using the app, Imm said.