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Some Drivers See Red Over Uber Black’s Strict Rules on Car Upgrades

Uber drivers who work for one of the ride-hailing company’s premium services generally find that the Uber Black "town car"-style trips are longer and more pleasant than the standard UberX rides, with a higher profit margin — think daytime business traveler airport pickups as opposed to pub-crawling millennials grabbing a 5:00 a.m. ride.

But, as is often the case, that comfort comes with a price tag.

Drivers who provide a luxury experience are expected to provide a luxury car, according to Uber. And in an increasingly saturated market where drivers are constantly battling for fares, Uber’s lower rates for passengers and tighter rules for those behind the wheel mean the math of luxury car ownership no longer adds up for many drivers.

Uber Black and UberSUV vehicles cannot be older than model year 2013, Uber told NBC News, and they must be on the company’s shortlist of approved vehicles — which includes the Audi Q7, BMW X5, Cadillac XTS, Porsche Panamera, plus any Bentley or Rolls Royce. Vehicles must also be “black on black” — black exterior with a black leather interior. Drivers who do not meet these requirements are downshifted to UberX, or dropped from the service entirely.

How are Uber drivers and other sharing services vetted? 3:10

In many cases, said one report, drivers have upgraded their vehicles only to find that a new set of rules overruled their new purchase, leaving them on the hook for hundreds of dollars a month in payments for a car that they could not use.

In addition to monthly bills for their premium cars, Uber Black or Uber SUV drivers must also shell out for a number of other requirements. In New York City, for example, Uber’s luxury car drivers need a CDL or Class E license, and must purchase commercial insurance, a Taxi and Limousine Commission license, and TLC plates.

"Basically, you have a lot of UberBlack passengers who just can't justify a ride."

Compounding the issue for drivers is Uber’s aggressive price structuring.

“Uber has cut prices pretty consistently over the past few years on UberX,” said Harry Campbell, who writes the Rideshare Guy blog. “A byproduct of that has been a decline in Uber Black business, too, since Uber Black prices have remained relatively steady for the past couple years. Basically, you have a lot of Uber Black passengers who just can't justify a ride.”

“Uber Black is at $3.55/mile [for passengers in Los Angeles] while UberX is only $0.90/mile. So a black car is almost four times more than an UberX. It's just not worth it for a lot of price-sensitive passengers,” Campbell told NBC News.

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Many Uber Black drivers have simply resorted to renting their vehicles from fleet owners, said Campbell, citing requirements that are "much more cost prohibitive to individual owners.”

But even the limousine companies are finding it hard to keep up with Uber’s regulations on vehicle upgrades.

“People lose their businesses because they didn’t put money to the side to buy new vehicles,” one limousine company owner told BuzzFeed.

Ultimately, the future of premium car services as a whole may be on the line.

“It is on the decline,” Campbell told NBC News. “If anything, prices are only going to get cheaper with more technical innovations like UberPool that will reduce the prices on UberX even further."