When you load up Uber on your phone you're shown a map with cars buzzing around it. "Look how easy it is to get a lift", the app seems to scream. But is it real? A few days ago allegations emerged that the 'real time' map was a fake, with the on-screen cars not actually reflective of where the nearest Ubers actually are.
Uber itself has now responded to these claims, telling The Guardian:
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. 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.
More seriously, Uber has also been accused of manipulating surge pricing - rather than basing it directly on demand as it implies. Alex Rosenblat, who carried out the original study described it:
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.
Uber hasn't commented on this.
The claims first emerged in a paper by Rosenblat and his colleague Luke Stark, who then wrote about it for Motherboard. The upshot of this second claim is that it could have an impact on Uber's precarious walking of the line between drivers being technically "employees" or "service providers".
Uber argues that it doesn't employ drivers (and so doesn't need to provide any of the employee benefits and employer would) - but if the algorithms work based on predicted demand, then the suppliers only get to see only what a system expects the state of the market to be, and not the market itself, so whether drivers are truly independent is arguably questionable. [The Guardian]