With the appeal by driver and rider matching service Uber against TfL’s decision to refuse it a licence renewal coming up next week, those considering whether this is a fit and proper applicant might like to consider the concept of “Ghost cars” and suspect surge pricing tactics that have been linked to Uber recently. Because these are yet more reasons for being sceptical of the company’s ability to clean up its act.
The Ghost car concept is the idea of showing potential punters that there are more cars in the area than actually exist as a way to make them think (a) a car will be with them sooner, and/or (b) the service is superior to the competition.
That idea was detailed by Gizmodo: “If you use Uber, you’ve seen the map that comes up when you want a ride. The map shows little car graphics … Once you request a ride, you can watch a little car creep closer to your destination as you wait. It’s a marvel of technology! Except it’s bullshit”. And why should that be?
“Alex Rosenblat and Luke Stark, researchers studying Uber’s user interaction, discovered that the map Uber shows passengers of its available local drivers isn’t very accurate/may be intentionally misleading … Rosenblat interviewed Uber drivers as research, including an Uber driver ‘Heather’ who noticed that the passenger map wasn’t showing correct information”. When “Heather” pointed this out to Uber, there was a surprising reply.
“The app is simply showing 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”. Then came a real belter of an excuse: “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”.
As Gizmodo observed, “When you open the app and see a bunch of available cars nearby, it makes it seem like it’s definitely the quickest way to get a ride, which makes Uber seem more attractive”. And once Uber has got the punter in its grasp, well, the opportunities for wallet-lightening are, it seems, endless. Right down to your phone’s battery status.
Such as … “Uber knows when the battery on your phone is running low - and that you are more likely to pay higher ‘surge’ prices for a car as a result”. Wait, what? “Uber knows whether a user is on low battery because the app needs to use that information to go into power saving mode”. And although Uber’s head of economic research at the time denied the company would use the knowledge about a punter’s low battery would be used to leverage more money out of them, he did acknowledge “We do have access to a tremendous amount of data”. Absolute data potentially corrupts absolutely.
These two potentially nice little earners are in addition to all the other manifestations of less than totally principled behaviour that Uber has brought to London. And although the company denies using them to further screw over the pundits, I’m sure the people at TfL will want to have the fullest information before them before reaching their judgment.
The list of Uber dirty tricks seems endless, doesn’t it? I’ll just leave that one there.