The right rear end of the Lexus is mangled, its parts exposed as haphazardly as a crash victim on a stretcher. Benny Huang knows the mechanical mess well.
“Half of our customers are Uber and Lyft drivers,” one of his salespeople told Mission Local over the phone. OK, maybe not halfbut for his A&K Supreme Auto Shop in South South San Francisco, they’ve become increasingly important.
Huang, 36, an immigrant from Guangdong Province, China, started out in a law firm’s mailroom like many other Chinese immigrants in the area. There, an experienced paralegal helped him master negotiation skills with auto insurance companies. That was his entry when A&K opened in 2018.
In the beginning he mainly bought and sold used cars to international students. But those students, by and large, left during the pandemic, and an influx of rideshares, nearly a hundred a year, partially bailed out Huang’s business.
Its most recent clients have provided Huang with a unique collection of ridesharing data.
The most popular ride-sharing car? The Lexus ES 300h, the most fuel-efficient model to qualify as a luxury vehicle on Uber and Lyft.
mileage per year? 100,000 on average. At first glance, this seems comparable to the 80,000 to 125,000 miles a year that a full-time truck driver drives, but factor in the city’s congestion and the time wasted waiting for orders and drivers, and the Mileage becomes grueling.
Huang calculates that a driver who clocks up 100,000 miles a year spends at least 12 hours a day just driving. He is incredulous, but knows that some cases are more extreme. “There was this one Uber [and Lyft] Driver who drove 250,000 miles or 125,000 miles per year in the two years between 2020 and 2022,” Huang said in his nondescript jacket and jeans.
They come or are towed to Huang’s store when accidents happen, when they need small beauty jobs to do, or when preparing their cars for the annual Uber and Lyft vehicle inspections.
The $2,500 deductible on Uber and Lyft’s insurance covers accidents on the way to pick up riders or while driving, meaning Huang generally only sees his customers after serious accidents.
But they also do visible, cosmetic work, because if a driver reports damage to the platform, drivers can have their accounts deactivated, which pretty much spells the end of the world for many.
All of these repairs result in costly work that drivers have to pay for out of pocket (additional personal auto insurance that some drivers take out can help).
Given these costs, it is not surprising that drivers are price sensitive. Sometimes they even emphasize cheap repairs over quality work, which presumably puts them in a better position to run into more problems.
While Huang has dealt with several female drivers who work long hours, most of his clients are monolingual Chinese men in their 30s and 40s. You drive a dozen hours a day in silence; Your primary means of communication is a constant stream of messages with other drivers. You will be the first to know who had another accident.
The pace of her work can make her frantic and impatient with repairs.
The cars that have been wheeled into his garage, orange peels and lunch boxes strewn on the carpet, have generally been hit from behind or in front, damage that takes a month to repair. They want their cars now.
“But I haven’t had the car repaired yet; how can I give it back to you?” Huang blurts out to explain his predicament. Often the drivers are in such a hurry that they can only get by under the pretense of external pressure, e.g. an unyielding insurance company or a problem in the supply chain.
In most cases, after being towed from the scene of the accident, the vehicle passes through Huang’s A&K, which is barely 0.1 miles off US-101. “Most collisions happen on freeways,” said the 12-year veteran of the auto body shop. “What I need are collisions.”
The most serious accident Huang has experienced involving a shark vehicle to date was a rollover on the road. But he couldn’t help it. The driver had to get a new car.
When Huang senses drivers’ impatience, he also sees that drivers are stressed at work.
While their cars are in Huang’s garage, many immediately jump to other jobs: delivering for Amazon or the online grocery delivery platform Weee!, because these platforms offer vehicles to their drivers.
Huang recalls a three-car driver who took turns driving for Uber and Lyft. At one point, all three were in Huang’s garage, either for repairs or pending repairs. “I asked him, ‘Doesn’t that tire you out?'” Huang said, but received no answer.
While he’s sympathetic, the inherent pressure also means the drivers who helped save his business are also Huang’s most troublesome customers. Thanks to word of mouth in a Chinese Wechat group of 500 Bay Area drivers, Huang has become the go-to for Chinese drivers. However, whenever the store struck up a conversation, Huang fell silent, hesitant to express his mixed feelings. “I don’t always like dealing with them. They keep pushing me to get their cars back early,” he added.
To make the relationship even more difficult, most drivers struggle to build trust outside of their own community and come with low expectations. “Insider tips” available on a popular ride-along resource site won’t help. “Most mechanics or body shops are counting on you failing your inspection so they can sell you new parts as a solution to get you on the road as soon as possible.”
“I used to say to my employees, ‘You grew up cheated,'” Huang said, meaning he and his employees have to work extra hard to earn their trust.
Huang’s knowledge of English, which he has developed over the past 17 years dealing with people of all kinds, offers an entry point. “They basically don’t know any English at all,” Huang said. “As long as you can speak English and are willing to help out with a few phone calls, they will always come to you. Just filling out a few forms is already helping them a lot,” he said.
The Lexus that was fixed the day I arrived will be ready in a few weeks, he said.
When it became clear that I would be staying to interview drivers, Huang pierced my expectations.
“You won’t see her here; they are all too busy making money.”