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Uber pushes new driver-friendly features amid lawsuits and scrutiny

Uber is rolling out the red carpet for its drivers, or at least the in-app version of a red carpet.

The ride-hailing giant announced a slate of new and expanded driver-friendly features on Monday, including greater control over ride destinations, incoming ride requests and the timing for cashing out payments from Uber, as well as new rewards for drivers to get discounted rides when they are passengers in other cars. 

These and other features, rolling out in Uber's dedicated app for drivers, come at a time when the $62.5 billion company is facing multiple lawsuits and unionization attempts from drivers as well as competition from "friendlier" rival Lyft and continued media scrutiny over how it treats its massive fleet.

One group representing 5,000 drivers in New York filed a lawsuit against Uber this month accusing the company of wage theft. In California, Uber may be forced to re-negotiate a $100 million settlement with drivers who joined a class-action lawsuit to be classified as employees with benefits rather than independent contractors. 

"The general trend is more toward combatting a lot of the issues around driver retention and the lawsuits they’re facing," says Harry Campbell, a driver for Uber and Lyft and creator of The Rideshare Guy, a popular blog for drivers in the new industry.

On a conference call with reporters to promote the expanded features, the company said none were "directly tied" to recent litigation. Instead, they are "direct responses" to driver feedback with the goal of easing "very real pain points."

Chief among those pain points is not having enough control over pickups and payments.

To address that, Uber is giving drivers in many U.S. cities the option to "pause" new ride requests while on a ride (without having to log off the app completely) and to set their intended destinations during the day to limit the odds of picking up a fare that takes them in the opposite direction. 

Uber is also expanding its recent policy to charge customers if they keep drivers waiting for longer than two minutes to more cities and making its Instant Pay feature, which lets drivers cash out earnings at any time, available in all U.S. cities.

"We... have heard from drivers like you that there are plenty of things we can do to make driving more empowering and worth your while," the company wrote in a post on its new blog called Behind The Wheel, intended to keep drivers informed of these new features. 

These perks, while certainly welcome, do little to offset the broader concern about Uber cutting ride prices and taking larger commissions in certain markets.

"It's not going to turn the tide," Campbell says. "The thing that drivers care most about is pay. These issues are low on the list of priorities for drivers, but they’re on the list."

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