Mobile taxi booking company Uber has made a mint out of promising convenience. Fire up its app when you're stuck for a ride and you'll be presented with a real-time map, dotted with nearby cars ready to whisk you away. But a new study shows that those "local" cars waiting to ferry you about might not even always exist, let alone justify the "surge" pricing Uber sometimes commands.
Alex Rosenblat and Luke Stark of New York think tank Data & Society have found that "the presence of those virtual cars on the passenger's screen does not necessarily reflect an accurate number of drivers who are physically present or their precise locations."
Describing the soon-to-be-published paper in Slate, the pair's peers reveal that instead "these phantom cars are part of a 'visual effect' that Uber uses to emphasise the proximity of drivers to passengers. Not surprisingly, the visual effect shows cars nearby, even when they might not actually exist."
The paper also calls into question Uber's position as a "facilitator" for its drivers, rather than being their "employer", based on the way its surge-pricing algorithm works. Its surge pricing is supposed to be based on marketplace data for real-time demand, but the paper's authors have scrutinised Uber's patents, finding that surge pricing is based instead "on the projected demands of drivers".
"The suppliers get to see only what a system expects the state of the market to be, and not the market itself," according to the authors, implying that the surge system is more self-serving for Uber than their market "facilitator" status would suggest.
Another day, another PR battle for Uber then; the claims are just the latest in a string of criticism Uber has faced, from stories of criminal drivers abroad to angry black cabbies being undercut closer to home in London. [Slate via Wired]