Uber is testing out an in-app phone line that allows drivers to connect with support workers in the event of routine issues such as payment problems.

The pilot launches in the San Francisco Bay Area Tuesday, and will first be available to several hundred drivers before access is expanded to the roughly 40,000 drivers in the region within the next couple of months, according to the company. As part of the pilot, drivers in the region will also have the option of being routed to a new emergency hotline that Uber is trying out in other parts of the country.

"This is kind of the next step as we pilot different things," says Uber's global operations lead, Michael Mizrahi, commenting on the company's ongoing shift from email to in-app messaging for customer service and driver communication with the company. Uber also operates centers where drivers can visit with support workers in person.

The help line, which is separate from the emergency line, is intended to make it easier for drivers to work through issues such as problems with their pay and questions about trip charges. Drivers will also be able to discuss issues around deactivation if they have reason to believe they may lose access to the driver app.

Uber was required to clarify its deactivation policy as part of the settlement of a recent lawsuit, and has faced criticism for a lack of transparency surrounding why it bans certain drivers. The company as part of its policy informs drivers if they are at risk for deactivation due to not meeting certain driver requirements.

Michael Sheppard, project manager for the pilot, says the initiative does not relate to the recent settlement. "This was in the works before [the lawsuit]. It's been something we were talking about for a while," she says.

Mizrahi says no new support workers are being hired or contracted for the pilot. He says Uber thinks the phone option may expedite solutions to problems in some cases, and that the company is waiting to see the volume of calls that pour in before deciding how to proceed.

A difference between the latest pilot and Uber's pilot of an emergency line that started in October: The company says it will notify drivers if they have access to the line through the app. In the emergency line pilot, drivers were not informed if they were part of the test. The company said in March it had been testing findability of the in-app call button.  

Published on: May 17, 2016