SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) -- Uber and Lyft drivers unhappy with their earnings and hours behind the wheel have protested recently, but now there's a new problem - drivers are having trouble affording the expensive car leases offered by the ride-hailing companies.
"They just called me and said your car is ready come get it," said a Lyft driver who gave his name as Kelsey. He said it was all too easy to get started with a brand new Prius from a San Francisco startup called Breeze.
Breeze offers leases on fuel efficient cars for the on-demand economy, all kinds of credit scores accepted. It's expensive; almost $800 a month. But for Kelsey, who was among the first to sign up and got a discount, "It seemed to work. I was making decent money," he said.
Then Lyft started to slash fares. "We have had five rate cuts since I started driving," he said. "Right now it's just not economically viable any more."
Another driver who identified herself as Angelica said she is also struggling. She got her car through Uber. "I actually, prior to this, had not had a car for about four years," said Angelica. "So I was, like, 'Oh wow, that sounds actually pretty cool.'"
She said Uber sent her to a Toyota dealership in San Francisco where she signed a lease with a company called BAMA. "It was kind of like a cattle call almost," said Angelica. Her lease seems a bargain compared to Breeze: just under $650 a month for a larger model Prius. But once you add in extra insurance for commercial use of the car, "I am paying at least $1,000 a month," she said.
"As a consumer protection attorney, this absolutely concerns me," said Claire Johnson Raba with Bay Area Legal Aid, which provides legal assistance to low-income clients. She said she's seeing a growing number of rideshare drivers coming in for help because because of problems with auto loans and leases offered to them by the companies. "This is one more debt, one more bill that they cannot pay, and this is a bill with some very serious consequences if it's not paid," said Johnson Raba.
She reviewed the drivers' contracts and said the biggest problem is that they are commercial leases that are not covered by consumer protection laws. "A commercial lease assumes that the two parties that entered into the contract are sophisticated parties, that they are businesses," said Johnson Raba. "That's not what's going on here."
Another problem with both companies' leases is the mileage limit: 2,500 miles a month. For the average consumer, that's probably fine. But if someone's driving for a living, they are going to be driving a lot and could get hit with extra mileage fees.
Kelsey decided enough was enough. "It looks like as long as the car is in decent condition and you fix the things they ask for then you can turn the car in," he said.
Angelica was not so lucky. Her car needs repairs that she will be charged for if she tries to turn it in. She doesn't have the money, and without the car she'll be out of work. Her advice to anyone thinking of signing up for a lease: stick to your minimum-wage job. "Some things really are too good to be true," she said.
Both Breeze and BAMA turned down our request for interviews. Lyft says it now has a new partnership with GM, which was announced early January. GM will become a preferred provider of short-term use vehicles to Lyft drivers through rental hubs in cities across the U.S.
Uber confirmed it still has a partnership with BAMA, but is now offering drivers a new lease called Uber Xchange with more options. In a statement, Andrew Chapin, Head of Vehicle Solutions said: "We often hear from drivers that they want to join Uber, but don't have access to a car or traditional vehicle financing. That's why we've developed a number of new leasing options and vehicle discount programs. With the Xchange Leasing option, drivers choose from a variety of cars and and prices and have the flexibility to return their vehicle easily if they change their mind. Our goal is to give drivers options they never had before, and drivers choose what works best for them."
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