Uber denies its app displays ‘phantom cabs’

Uber has denied claims that its app gives users a false picture of the number of cabs on the road in their local area

Uber has denied that its app misleads users, after researchers from the Data & Society thinktank accused the cab hire firm of displaying “phantom cars”.

In an article for Vice’s Motherboard, the researchers claimed that the app shows cars in the passenger’s vicinity even when there are none there, citing testimonies from drivers and passengers.

One driver descibed a scenario where the passenger app’s map showed four drivers on the streets immediately by her pick-up location, but the estimated wait time for the closest car was 17 minutes.

The researchers also cited an Uber customer support representative, who reportedly 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. This is more of a visual effect, letting people know that partners are searching for fares,” the representative allegedly said.

“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.”

Uber said that any discrepencies between the app and cars on the street are caused by network delays, and not by any attempts to mislead users.

“Our goal is for the number of cars and their location to be as accurate as possible in real time. 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,” an Uber Spokesperson told The Telegraph.

“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.”

The company added that the “volatility” scenario does not apply to the UK, so the cars that users see on the in-app map are the cars that are physically on the road in their dispatch area.

The only time when an available cab would not show up on the map is in “severe circumstances”, such as such as the recent violence seen in France and Italy against drivers on the Uber platform.

This does not mean that the location is not accurate or representative, but rather that it isn’t visible to the rider until the trip is accepted, according to Uber.

Uber has not commented on other allegations in the Motherboard piece, such as that claim that the company’s controversial “surge pricing” does not always reflect real-time demand.

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