Angel Torres was driving down a major Los Angeles boulevard in late 2016 when it happened: Ride requests from Uber and Lyft arrived at the same second. As he looked away from the road to decide which trip was more worth his time, he nearly rear-ended the car ahead of him. “It scared the crap out of me,” Torres says. He was new to juggling the two apps, and was so rattled by the near miss that he started pulling over every time he needed to accept a ride on one app or turn off the other. That’s time-consuming and costly: For Torres, like all workers in the gig economy, “every minute is money.”
Torres’s plight is all too common. Nearly 70 percent of on-demand drivers work for both Uber and Lyft, and one-quarter drive for more than just those two, according to a survey by The Rideshare Guy, a popular website for rideshare drivers. But each app wants to keep drivers exclusively on its platform. The apps’ designs make it easier for drivers to accept every ride they’re handed, rather than consider options: When a ride request comes in, drivers have about 15 seconds to assess the type of ride (Lyft Line, Uber X, etc.), the passenger rating, the time it will take to pick up the passenger, the length of the trip, and whether or not surge pricing applies. That’s a lot of information to absorb in a short amount of time, let alone compare with a competing offer. In other words, as much as Uber and Lyft promise their drivers independence, they make it difficult—and at times unsafe—for drivers to exercise it.
Those constraints inspired former Uber and Lyft driver Herb Coakley to start Mystro, an app that circumvents on-demand platforms’ notorious psychological tricks to give drivers more control over their work. Mystro aggregates jobs from Uber, Lyft, and (as of December) Postmates, and presents them to drivers on one screen; it also lets its 40,000 users set filters to automatically accept or reject rides based on distance, surge pricing, passenger ratings, and more. As of a month ago, Mystro lets drivers do all that without taking their hands off the wheel.
Coakley started driving for Uber and Lyft in Los Angeles in 2016, when he felt like he had hit bottom: He’d drained his life’s savings trying to produce a movie, and was crashing on a friend’s couch while going through a divorce. Driving was supposed to be a stopgap measure until he figured out his next move, but when Coakley found himself longing for a way to see what both Uber and Lyft were offering simultaneously, he realized he had stumbled upon something big.
His idea appealed immediately to drivers, who spar regularly with the app companies. Uber has blocked drivers’ attempts to unionize in Seattle; Postmates has fended off claims that its drivers should be granted employee benefits; and Grubhub recently prevailed over a driver who argued he’d been misclassified as an independent contractor. Coakley also won over Dwayne Shaw, an old friend from Howard University who was working as a contract art director at Audible and who would soon become Mystro’s cofounder and COO.
Emboldened by Shaw’s enthusiasm, Coakley relocated from Los Angeles to San Francisco and started pitching every person who wound up in his car. His tech-savvy passengers were skeptical. To make Mystro work, they insisted, he would need access to Uber’s and Lyft’s APIs—and neither company would grant access to a service that makes it easier for drivers to switch.
How It Works
A year after moving to San Francisco, Coakley was starting to lose hope. But then, as a last resort, he posted a call for technical assistance on Craigslist—and his listing caught the attention of Matthew Rajcok, a developer who was just finishing his BA at Yale. “I was really motivated by the fact that so many people said this was impossible—I was like, OK, I’m going to crack this nut,” Rajcok recalls. He flew to San Francisco to meet Coakley and Shaw at a coworking space, and within six hours, he’d built them a working prototype. He is now Mystro’s CTO and cofounder.
The key was tapping into Android’s accessibility features, which allow one app to “see” what’s happening on other apps running in the background and perform actions on them. The team felt stymied when they realized that Apple’s iOS, the operating system for iPhones, does not allow apps to snoop on one another. But they regained enthusiasm when Coakley, who was still driving, picked up an Uber staffer, who casually mentioned that 55 percent of Uber drivers use Android phones; overseas, the passenger said, it’s closer to 90 percent. Soon after, Coakley found himself chauffeuring a then-Google employee named Andrew Taylor, who was so…