Uber seems very eager to replace its human drivers with self-driving cars. But meanwhile, it's making some attempts to improve a relationship that has long been rocky. Image source: Uber Technologies.

Ride-hailing giant Uber said this week it's rolling out a host of changes to its software app that aim to improve its drivers' experiences. 

It's the latest move in the escalating battle between Uber and its smaller rival, Lyft. Both are pushing aggressively to expand, and both are battling hard to lure -- and retain -- drivers to their services. 

Uber pointedly showed off improvements for its drivers

In a post on its official blog, Uber announced several new features in the drivers' version of its smartphone app. All are intended to make life a bit easier for Uber drivers. Among the new features:

  • "Driver Destinations": Twice a day, drivers can input a destination and Uber will only send trip requests that are along the inputted route. The idea is to help drivers stay on course if they're headed home at the end of the day, for instance, or if they're heading to work (at another job) in the morning and want to be able to pick up a rider or two on the way. 
  • "Pause Requests": Drivers can now hit a button in the app to "pause" service requests and take a break. In the past, drivers have had to decline trip requests in order to buy time for a bathroom break, for instance, or to refill their vehicle with gas. 

Other new features include a new function that will allow drivers to be paid on demand, rather than weekly, and a new policy (rolling out gradually across the country) that will pay drivers who spend more than two minutes waiting for a passenger. 

Uber didn't already have all of that?

It does seem odd that Uber didn't build in functions allowing its drivers to take bathroom breaks and head home right from the start. But treating its drivers with thoughtful consideration has not exactly been an Uber hallmark.

In fact, Uber has long had a tense relationship with its drivers. Groups of drivers have organized protests against policy changes and fare cuts. Drivers have also sued to be recognized as employees rather than contracts. Uber recently settled a pair of class action suits filed by drivers, promising to increase pay and to spell out certain policies more clearly to its drivers. 

Uber now seems to be facing up (at least a little bit) to the need to make its service more attractive to new drivers -- not to mention to hang on to the drivers it has already brought on board. That includes finding ways to make suitable vehicles available to potential drivers who may not have one of their own. About a year ago, Uber started a program called Xchange to lease vehicles to new drivers -- but the program has recently been sharply criticized: Drivers with subprime credit pay huge charges to lease vehicles via Xchange. 

Toyota (NYSE:TM), which recently made a modest investment in Uber, will begin leasing vehicles to Uber drivers later this year under a new program, one that will hopefully give drivers a better deal. 

But meanwhile, Lyft is responding with a different program put together with its new partner General Motors (NYSE:GM), one that could be more appealing to cash-strapped potential drivers

Lyft's new program with GM rents vehicles to drivers at a weekly rate that starts at $99 and drops as drivers give more rides to Lyft customers. Give enough rides, and the rate drops all the way to zero. 

The upshot: It's a start, but Uber needs to do a lot more

There's a sense that Uber is just biding its time until it can replace all of its pesky human drivers with self-driving cars. But while self-driving technology is making huge strides, it's clear Uber is going to have to deal with human drivers for at least several more years. 

These latest changes to its app won't hurt its relationships with its drivers. But I don't know that they'll help a whole lot, either -- and meanwhile, Lyft will do its best to take advantage. 

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.