Uber has denied claims its application misleads users by displaying “phantom cars” which don’t actually exist.
The claim was made by Alex Rosenblat and Luke Stark, a pair of researchers from the Data & Society thinktank. In an article for Vice’s Motherboard, Rosenblat wrote that the phantom cars are just one way that Uber’s passenger app can be “deceptive”.
Rosenblat and Stark cited driver and passenger testimonies which suggested that the app shows cars present in the passengers’ vicinity even when none are there. They also cited an Uber customer-support representative who apparently told a passenger that the app “is simply showing that there are partners on the road at the time”.
“This is not a representation of the exact numbers of drivers or their location,” the representative allegedly continued. “This is more of a visual effect, letting people know that partners are searching for fares. I know this seems a misleading to you but it is meant as more of a visual effect more than an accurate location of drivers in the area. It would be better of you to think of this as a screen saver on a computer.”
But Uber UK says that the cars are real, if occasionally lagging behind real time.
“Our goal is for the number of cars and their location to be as accurate as possible in real time,” a spokesperson told the Guardian. “Latency is one reason this is not always possible. Another reason is that the app only shows the nearest eight cars to avoid cluttering the screen. Also, to protect the safety of drivers, in some volatile situations, the app doesn’t show the specific location of individual cars until the ride is requested.”
Uber has not commented on other allegations in Rosenblat’s piece, including that claim that surge pricing – the company’s controversial practice of increasing the fare during times of high demand – is also based on illusory circumstances.
He writes: “While surge pricing is represented as a reflection of the marketplace, our research suggests that Uber’s algorithms are also predictive: they forecast supply and demand so that drivers can be pre-positioned to meet predicted demand, but they don’t always reflect an accurate picture in real time.”
As a result, drivers tell stories of being encouraged to drive to an area by surge pricing, only to find that there are no customers there.
Rosenblat and Stark’s claims are based on a forthcoming paper from Data & Society.