When you open the Uber app, the first thing you see is a map with (hopefully) a bunch of cars circling your location. Oh good, you think, there are plenty of drivers right next to me. I should be able to get a ride in no time.
In theory, yes, if all those cars you see on the map are actual Uber drivers. But according to a new a report (and plenty of Uber drivers), Uber's tricking everyone.
Two researchers working on drivers' interactions with the Uber app discovered a lot of reports of "phantom cabs" – cars that were indicated on the passenger map but didn't really exist in real life. Plants, if you will.
A report on Motherboard from one of the researchers, Alex Rosenblat, includes the story of an Uber driver named 'Heather'.
Here's what an Uber Help staffer told Heather when she addressed the issue of these ghost cars:
There is speculation that it’s more likely that this is intentional on Uber’s part, rather than a bug in the system. If a potential passenger opened up the app and saw no cars around, she might take another cab service. But if she saw a cluster of cars seemingly milling around on the same street, she’s more likely to request a ride.
When asked about this seeming discrepancy, an Uber spokesperson said that on the rider app, “The number of cars and their location are generally accurate.”
When Heather asked an Uber Help staff member, however, she was told that the rider map was just a “screen saver.”
“The app is simply showing there are partners on the road at the time,” the staffer wrote in an email. “This is not a representation of the exact numbers of drivers or their location. 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. Once a rider request a trip there will be actual information about the partners [sic] location showing up in the app."
A screen saver. According to that Uber employee, the map you see when you open the Uber app is not intended to be accurate.
In response to this, an Uber spokesperson said that “the map is as accurate as possible in the close vicinity of your location."
Heather from VICE's report is far from the first Uber driver to tell this story.
– I just opened the app and it shows there are 7 cars in downtown ft worth/w 7th St area. I have been working that area for 6 months and there is no way there are 7 cars there are not even 2 on a regular lunch time. Total BS don't fall for Uber lies and ghost cars. Uber show me the proof I will admit I am wrong but I know i am not.
– sometimes I'm sitting on the side of the street waiting and I open the Uber app also and i shows like 3 ghost cars passing me and i know because I'm the only car on the street, for like 5 minutes prior and after.
– I have noticed some really interesting things here in my city, too. We're a pretty small Uber market. At times, during the bar rush at closing time, I'll play the surge game by shutting off the app and waiting for surge to hit 2.0 or better. It's pretty easy to track what's happening because there will be ZERO cars available. But here's the deal. When I turn off my app, as soon as my little car icon disappears, another one close by automatically pops up immediately. At first, I thought it was just a coincidence. But then it happened again... and again and again. As soon as I turn off my app and disappear, another car icon shows up close by. As soon as I turn the app back on and go available, the mystery car disappears at the same time my car appears. It's really sketchy. I've noticed this happening for the last three weekends.
– I sat on a dark street 2 nights ago waiting, and according to the app, 2 other uber drivers were coming around the corner towards me in both directions, passing each other. Not a single car passed me for over 5-6 minutes.
It would surely benefit Uber to show passengers a map full of available drivers – that's a no brainer. On the drivers' side of things, the researchers suggest that Uber is "disingenuous" in the way it handles surge pricing – using "predictive" algorithms instead of responding to genuine supply and demand.
"What Uber has produced is a mirage of a marketplace," says Rosenblat.