The problem with Uber

I just spent a wonderful and exhausting five days in the Bay Area: meeting friends, holding the first-ever combined SlateStarCodex/Shtetl-Optimized meetup, touring quantum computing startups, meeting with Silicon Valley folks about quantum computing, and giving a public lecture for the Simons Institute in Berkeley.  I’ll probably say more about some of these events in future posts, but for now: thanks so much to everyone who helped them happen!

Alas, my experiences getting around the Bay this week convinced me that there’s a real problem with Uber.  And no, I’m not talking about their corporate culture, or the personality of ousted CEO Travis Kalanick, or the hardball lobbying of municipalities to allow ride-sharing, or the taxi companies needing to adapt to survive, or even Uber having an unsustainable business model (they could charge more and I’d still use it…).

The problem is: when you order an Uber, like 2/3 of the time you and the driver can’t find each other without a lot of back and forth.

Firstly, because you can’t specify where you are with enough accuracy.  When you try, the app does this thing where it literally moves the “you are here” pointer to a place where you’re not. And then, even if the little dot correctly indicates your location, for some reason the driver will think you’re somewhere totally different.

Secondly, because Uber cars are typically unmarked.  Yes, the app tells you that it’s a white Ford or whatever—but there’s a lot of white cars, and it’s hard (at least for me) to distinguish models at a distance, so you can then face a stressful “Where’s Waldo?” problem involving hundreds of cars.

Thirdly, because the drivers understandably have their phones mounted on their dashboards—the result being that, when you call to try to figure out where they are, nothing they say can be distinguished from “mmph hrmph mmph.”  And of course they can’t text while driving.

To be clear, these gripes arise only because ride-sharing apps generally work so damn well, and are such an advance over what preceded them, that they’ve changed our expectations about the convenience of getting from place to place.  Because of Uber and Lyft and so on, it’s tempting to plan your life around the assumption that you can be anywhere in a greater metro area, and within 3 minutes a car will magically arrive to take you to wherever else in that area you need to be—while your brain remains uncluttered with transportation logistics, among the most excruciating of all topics.  This is a problem borne of success.

But—good news, everyone!—I have an idea to solve the problem, which I hereby offer free of charge to any ride-sharing service that wants to adopt it.  Namely, when you order a ride, why doesn’t the app—with your explicit permission, of course—use your phone’s camera to send a selfie of you, together with the location where you’re waiting, to the driver?  Is there some obvious reason I’m missing why this wouldn’t work?  Have any ride-sharing companies tried it?  (I only learned today that I can update my Uber profile to include my photo.  Hopefully that will help drivers find me—but a photo of the intersection, or the side of the building where I am, etc. could help even more.)

48 Responses to “The problem with Uber”

  1. Carl Says:

    Not a problem I’ve personally had, but reportedly drivers won’t pick you up as a black person if they know you’re black.

  2. Matthias Goergens Says:

    I wonder whether this good idea will smash against the very same cliff that keeps them from sending you a picture of the car. (Instead of just licence number and make.)

    It’s such an obvious improvement, there must be a good reason for them to not do it.

  3. Ash Says:

    It can’t be a selfie with your face, as companies/regulators/etc fear the drivers would discriminate against minorities, elderly, obese people, people with dogs, etc.

  4. tas Says:

    I also really dislike the fact that Uber “rounds” your location to the nearest street address. It should show the driver your GPS-derived location and update it as you move, just like the rider sees the driver’s real-time location.

    I would also be very happy if I could add a note about my location. e.g. “waiting beside the street light” or “standing outside starbucks”

  5. Ash Says:

    It wouldn’t be a bad idea for the app to ask you to take a selfie of the street address. But that’s hard to make workable at night, or may not be of much help on a big city street.

    It might just be easier to build and allow ridesharing cars to mix in with and share pick up spots built for taxis and rideshares and then direct riders to a safe pick up spot, rather than allow riders and cars to stop any old place on a street while disrupting traffic and creating safety problems.

    It would probably make your ride faster and more efficient for you, rider and other drivers if non-disabled riders were directed to walk up to 200 feet say to a safe pickup location akin to a bus stop/taxi stand where drivers would find it easy to get in and out and riders would find it easier to figure out their uber car from any old random car.

  6. Ash Says:

    Privacy? Would you want dozens of Uber drivers to be in permanent possession of your selfie?

  7. jonas Says:

    The same problem sometimes happens with taxis. While taxis are marked, in popular places like big squares in a city, there are often a lot of taxis together, and it’s hard to tell which one you need. And yes, the taxi drivers don’t always get your instructions about where exactly they should go when you order a taxi.

  8. dwu Says:

    Seems like it’s an outright bug in their app if in the cases where in your side of the app the dot actually does perfectly accurately indicate where you are, drivers still frequently see you as being in a different location.

  9. Chris Says:

    This times a million. Although honestly for me the fundamental flaw in the Uber/Lyft thing is that cellphone batteries run out so easily.

    The worst part of modern life is that when you make everything dependent on having the cellphone charged, THAT becomes the thing you worry about the most.

    The second thing I worry about, especially when in the Bay Area, is losing my Internet connection.

    Unfortunately, both cellphone battery life and Internet reliability throughout a city both kind of suck. This is especially true when you rely on these things to 1. get around and 2. buy things to eat.

    Your life LITERALLY depends on these things in modern society.

  10. Nathan Williams Says:

    Lyft has attacked the unmarked-car part of this problem by giving drivers a light-up sign with their logo that sits in the dashboard facing forward; in high-density situations, the signs in different cars will light up different colors, and the app tells you whether you’re looking for yellow or purple or whatever.

    I’m skeptical that the photograph thing would be helpful; the driver has enough of a different angle from you that unless there’s an especially clear landmark it’s going to be hard to figure out.

  11. Sniffnoy Says:

    Are you using the GPS to indicate where you are or are you entering an explicit address? I’ve heard the GPS is just kind of unreliable and you’re better off entering an explicit address if you know one.

  12. Shaun M Says:

    This is a problem they’re aware of and working on. There are a few paths towards a solution, one of which is using a phone’s camera. Another is with better modeling leading to “precision GPS” (such as adding a correction based on accelerometer data.) I’d estimate at most two years until this problem is solved and live in their app. There are also a few start ups working on this problem w/ the goal to sell to Uber, Lyft and future autonomous vehicle fleets.

  13. Scott Says:

    Carl #1 and Ash #3: No, I don’t think discrimination can be the issue, because (as I just learned today…) the Uber app already lets you upload a profile photo. And people who were worried that drivers would discriminate against them based on appearance could always leave their profile photo blank (as I unknowingly did for years), and send a photo of where they were that only showed the nearby landmarks, not them.

  14. Scott Says:

    dwu #8: Yes, I also strongly suspect an actual bug in the app: if the app knows I’m here, then how does it so often happen that the driver thinks I’m several blocks away?

  15. Scott Says:

    Sniffnoy #11: Yeah, I talked to my Uber driver about it today. He told me that Uber’s GPS sucks for some reason, so much so that he relies on Waze for GPS instead (!). And he liked my photo idea, which gave me all the N=1 encouragement I needed to post it. 🙂

  16. Scott Says:

    Shaun #12: Extremely interesting! Do you know the names of any of these startups, and what ideas they’re trying?

  17. Jules Says:

    Sounds like a job for what3words.

    They have divided the Earth’s land masses into 3m x 3m squares and assigned a unique three word sequence to each one. Their app allows you to get the three words for your current location, or wherever you need. It’s very cool, but seems very underused.

  18. Ash Says:

    FWIW, Ash @ #6 was not written by me (Ash #3 and #5)

    > discrimination can be the issue, because (as I just learned today…) the Uber app already lets you upload a profile photo.

    Scott, discrimination is precisely the issue.

    Uber Drivers for the most part do not see any picture of the rider. We see a generic color drawing of the rider that is the same for all riders.

    https://i.imgur.com/ZmWXbcy.png

    We used to see destination, but they removed the destination to fight discrimination. We don’t see a photo. We don’t even see a name.

    https://www.mobipicker.com/uber-lyft-respond-discrimination-charges-defend-anti-discrimination-policies-practices/

    > Uber also clarified that when a rider requests an Uber, a driver only sees the rider’s current location, star rating, type of service selected and dynamic pricing info. The rider’s first name is seen only after accepting the request and that rider’s full name is never shown to a driver. Uber also emphasized that it doesn’t require riders to assign a photo to their account and that even if riders choose to do so, the driver never sees it.

    On Lyft, we do get a name and a photo, but we don’t get the destination.

    ==========

    In my not so humble speculation and experience, a lot of the location uncertainty comes from these factors:

    + gps is flaky in downtown areas with high towers. And I mean very flaky, it’s not unusual to see riders and cars locations a block or more away from their meatspace location.

    + there seems to be an association of the gps location of a street address with the geographical center of the parcel itself, not with the gps location on the street of the street address. So often times, Google Maps or Waze will direct a driver to an alley behind the building or to a sidestreet of the building because the mapping programs seem to believe that the alley location is closer to it’s understanding of the gps address of the street address than the actual street itself.

    ==========

    It would also help to have an always on, speaker phone like, walkie talkie mode on the driver and rider apps and even some scripted and augmented dialogs for rider and driver.

    “I am in front of the ice cream store wearing a blue jacket.”

    Sometimes in the middle of traffic it’s easy to lose directions or even your ability to figure out where you are in relation to a rider. The app, even with flaky gps, can mostly figure that out and provide some tips to both rider and driver that it doesn’t.

    “I’m pulling up now in my green Prius. I am coming from the east and I’m on the other side of the intersection of Main and Mountain”

  19. Ash Says:

    > I’ve heard the GPS is just kind of unreliable and you’re better off entering an explicit address if you know one.

    The explicit address doesn’t necessarily help as it seems to get translated into a GPS address for routing, and then the navigation system takes the driver to an alley or side street.

    What does help is a text message to the driver saying “I will be on 11th Street with an umbrella”.

    The other thing that helps, sigh, is a recognition that for many drivers, myself included, at certain times of the day, when there is heavy traffic or on one way streets, arriving on the other side of the street, or across an intersection, or down a side street is considered arriving!

    Uber is not actually a service that guarantees a car picks you up precisely where you are, but it’s very easy to forget that, so it’s very very helpful to text the driver and communicate about where you are, where she is, etc.

  20. Walker Says:

    Doesn’t it just let you pin on a map where you want the pickup to happen?

    Like, pick me up at this intersection in Google Maps and remember that for later since i’m not that diverse in my commuting needs.

  21. Scott Says:

    Ash #18, #19: Thanks! It’s super helpful to get a driver’s perspective here. Personally, I’m always totally fine with the driver parking around the corner, on the other side of the street, etc. etc. as long as I can figure out where they are. So maybe the photo-sharing tool that I’m suggesting should be two-way!

  22. pku31 Says:

    I mentioned this story when you were here, it’s fun.
    https://www.sbnation.com/a/17776-football

  23. Colin Rafferty Says:

    Lyft lets you move the pin on the map to exactly where you think you are. It starts with the phone’s gps, but you have total control.

    Which makes sense since you might call the car while you’re still a few minutes away.

  24. Shmi Says:

    Yet another famous Scott A (the one of Dilbert fame, and predicting the rise of Trump) has an app that apparently has the needed features: https://approach.whenhub.com/

  25. Stella Says:

    The tension at hand seems to be that street addresses are necessary to do google-maps-style navigation, but is very unhelpful for actually causing the driver and rider to meet. In the face of this, I propose that the app pairs your GPS location with a street address that it uses for navigation, but also displays a marker precisely where you dropped the pin. So there are two markers, one for “nearest street address” and one for “actual physical location.”

    The key is that the “actual physical location” marker isn’t a GPS location at all. My phone has an uber app with a map and the driver’s phone has an uber app with the exact same map. It’s a computationally hard problem (but not, I think, “too hard”) to calculate the overlay of those two maps and place the “actual physical marker” in precisely the same location the customer put it.

    When the driver approaches the area the customer is in, the driver will use the “actual physical location” marker to navigate the last two blocks or so. It may be best for the GPS approximation to also disappear off the map when you get within… 1,000 feet? In an ideal world the marker wouldn’t disappear because destroying information is bad, but that might not be intuitive to the drivers / might not be best in practice.

    I feel like this addresses all of the GPS-related qualms raised in this thread so far? It doesn’t make it any easier for the customer to find the driver, but I think it would be a serious improvement.

    On a related note, drivers often get confused by parking lots and local road weirdness. Perhaps giving the user the ability to trace a recommended path for driving within a {some number goes here} foot radius would be helpful? The immediate issue with that is that most people with smartphones don’t have a stylus, and drawing by hand is hard. It’s a shame the Palm Pilot died out 😛

  26. asdf Says:

    I’ve resisted the uber and lyft apps and just get around by bus or walking most of the time, but today I called an old fashioned taxicab. I gave them the address where I was–they still use those instead of GPS coordinates, and the cab arrived within about 3 minutes. Analog technology still works fine.

  27. fred Says:

    Scott
    “Firstly, because you can’t specify where you are with enough accuracy. When you try, the app does this thing where it literally moves the “you are here” pointer to a place where you’re not.”

    You, of all people, should understand the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle!

  28. fred Says:

    You can augment the selfie with facial/surrounding real-time recognition, with AR, to place a virtual arrow above your head.

  29. Error Says:

    With respect to the phone-on-the-dashboard problem, the simplest solution is bluetooth earbuds. They’re inexpensive and a hell of a lot more intelligible than speakerphones.

  30. Ash Says:

    > You can augment the selfie with facial/surrounding real-time recognition, with AR, to place a virtual arrow above your head.

    I don’t think riders will want to take selfies all of the time, or even pictures of their surroundings, HOWEVER, another way to look at this is that Uber knows the color make and model of the cars we drive and knows about where I am, so the AR could be on the riders phone that recognizes my car and shows a virtual arrow over my car as I show up.

    The problem is, I often find I still can’t easily see what appears on my phone screen when I am outdoors, so maybe in addition to a virtual there are both auditory and vibratory cues whenever the phone is pointed towards the right car.

    “cold, cold, getting warmer, warm, getting hotter, hot, red hot, that’s it!, okay warm, getting colder, you missed it dude, pay attention next time.”

  31. foobar Says:

    As other people pointed out the picture of location wouldn’t work because it wouldn’t give the driver a picture from their vantage point (and zoomed out) when approaching and it wouldn’t work in the dark. The selfie wouldn’t work for similar reasons (no one can pick out your face from a hundred feet away and even picking out your clothing is pretty difficult).

    My solution was to use the compass on the device to give an indication of the bearing of the driver on the passenger’s phone and vice-versa. It’s not perfect because the compass is not very accurate and wouldn’t allow the phone to be perfectly vertical in a car mount but even 30 degrees of accuracy would be helpful. I sent a deck to Uber’s head of product detailing this idea but I assume that the deck went directly into the trash. Soon after they released a prototype that displayed a unique color on the driver’s dash and on the passenger’s phone so that they would be easy to find in the dark, but Uber seems to have abandoned the idea, even if Lyft has implemented it. Unfortunately it doesn’t help in the day time.

  32. Cmon! Says:

    Hi Scott,

    Its not a problem I have personally had, but of course, others like yourself have had. So it def. needs to be resolved.

    However, sending a selfie is just such a bad idea. I am alreday horrified at my phone number linked with so many of my online activities and now my phone number will be linked with my real time picture and real time location!

    I will immediately stop using Uber if this feature becomes mandatory. This is too much of a privacy violation IMO.

    (The app requires drivers to accept rides without disclosing information about them — this REALLY helps with discrimination, not just about race but also drivers not wanting to serve certain locations etc.)

  33. Scott Says:

    Cmon! #32: I’d never suggest that such a feature be mandatory. And if it turned out not to work, because the photos are from the wrong angles or whatever, then it shouldn’t even be optional.

    Personally, though, there’s almost no amount of privacy I wouldn’t trade for being able to get from one place to another place reliably.

  34. Hanan Cohen Says:

    Some time ago David Weinberger suggested a feature for the Uber application that will enable the driver and client to better identify each other.

    “It’d have a photo of your driver enlarged on some type of animated screen, with a color assigned to your driver. You’d hold the phone out toward where the car’s approaching from so the driver can see you and know that you are indeed the fare.”

    http://www.hyperorg.com/blogger/2015/06/12/ubers-one-remaining-awkward-moment/

  35. Stella Says:

    If we’re going with virtual markers, is there a technological reason we can’t just do “sonar”? The driver’s phone pings mine and gets a bearing towards where I am. Useless for general navigation, but incredibly helpful if we are within a block of each other.

  36. NYDenizen Says:

    Note: The following comments are very much from a NYC perspective. Plus, BTW, you can’t call cabs by phone. Haul or die!
    Before considering extensive technology changes and the possible additional requirements, I’d like to see a simple enhancement when the initial reservation is made: Optional text field for information such as: “I have a 20 lb dog”; “I’ll be waiting on the south-east corner” (can be significant in Manhattan where extablishing the optimal direction the car at pickup can avoid illegal U-turns and lane changes or even worse, having to traverse a full city block that can in rush hour add 30+ minutes to the ride) and when raining, allows me to wait under shelter at a spot that might be subject to the latter arrival-direction problem, but which I can vacate once the car arrives. But maybe the simplest benefit of this low-tech form of communication is something ulike, “I’m male and wearing a blue baseball hat. When you arrive put you flashers on and/or flash your brights when you spot me.”
    I’ve successfully used these techniques for many years with livery cars where the detailed information is given verbally when making the reservation.

  37. William Hird Says:

    Maybe designing a flawless digital taxi service that works in all locations and conditions is an NP complete problem. Call in the SAT solvers 🙂

  38. Manu Sridharan Says:

    Hi Scott, it’s been a while! Not sure if you remember me from Berkeley days 🙂 I work at Uber now. A couple of thoughts:

    * Not sure where exactly you were when booking these rides, but urban GPS does in fact suck. There are people thinking about ways to do better, both at Uber and I’m sure other places.

    * That said, the location shouldn’t consistently be *way* off. It usually isn’t for me. I can file a bug report given some more info over email.

    * “Uber cars are typically unmarked”: I usually rely on the license plate info in the app to find drivers. Once in a while the info isn’t there, but these days that is rare. Did you not see driver license plate info? Or was it just unhelpful since the location was too far off?

    * There are products like Uber Beacon (https://beacon.uber.com/) and Lyft Amp (https://take.lyft.com/amp/) that can help you find a driver by showing the beacon color in your app. Not sure how widely they are deployed.

  39. Patrick Says:

    They list the license plate, unambiguous enough.

  40. NYDenizen Says:

    Not when the street is double-parked, bumper to bumper, as it is in the big cities.
    N any case, I’m the damn d customer. Why do I have to do all the work and dodge the traffic when the service can solve most of this very easily.

    NP problem? Ov3thinking this a bit, I’d say.

  41. NYDenizen Says:

    And if this is how Uber gathers its bug reports, why are we not all rolling in the aisles?

  42. William Hird Says:

    @NYDenizen #40:

    I was only kidding about the Uber problem being NP complete:-) I have better NP complete jokes than that.

    “Why is being the sign language person at a Noam Chomsky lecture the hardest job in the world? Because translating a Chomsky lecture into sign language is an NP complete problem” ( the depth and breadth of Chomsky’s ideas are so wonderous that they can never be rendered comprehensible by any finite set of hand gestures 🙂

  43. NYDenizen Says:

    0k #42. Thanks for the correction. But I wasn’t aware there even was a ‘NP joke’ genre.
    Help! Am I in the wrong thread?

  44. Chris Says:

    If it’s further than I can cycle and there’s no train/plane/boat then I ain’t going there. The exception being, of course, LA. But that is something of a pathological counterexample.

  45. AR Says:

    Super accurate GPS (few centimeters resolution compared to few meters!) coming to cell phones next year to move this problem into history.
    https://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/semiconductors/design/superaccurate-gps-chips-coming-to-smartphones-in-2018.amp.html

  46. Richard Says:

    The problem with Uber is that they are a bunch of sociopathic law-flauting assholes whose drivers are uninsured, oblivious, exploited and unskilled and uniformly present a MAJOR safety hazard to other road users.

    In particular, the GPS jockey drivers — with little to no knowledge of local urban streets — who work (oh, sorry independently contract for) the try-to-sue-us-and-we’ll-just-buy-off-your-representatives company are VERY HAPPY INDEED to instantly pull over to find you, the passenger, the most important person in the world, without the slightest attention to cyclists, pedestrians, turn signals, other vehicles, double-yellow lines, anything.

    They’re happy to stop in the middle of the road, disruptively GPS guided, blocking traffic lanes, blocking bike lanes, throwing doors and passengers into traffic, slamming and veering, so that YOU, the so-trangressive, singularity warrior, rationalist-skeptical uber-mensch, can hop on in in front of any geo-coded address and be whisked to your next assignment.

    And when they injure somebody? Not Uber’s problem! Go after the not-commerically-licenced not-comercially-insured app-controlled nobody all you like. Hah hah hah!

    They’re a fucking nightmare. And not because iPhone GPS isn’t centimeter-accurate.

  47. Raoul Ohio Says:

    Richard brings up a good point in $46.

    Uber is the poster child example a new technology company that is making billions by screwing everyone over. They would probably still be profitable if they followed the same rules as the traditional competition does, but that is not the plan.

    There is likely a long history of why most placed require taxi drivers to have background checks, take safety courses, and follow rules, and the companies to have plenty of insurance.

  48. terebinth Says:

    I personally agree with Raoul about the loathsomeness of Uber and I will try never to give a cent to make them richer, but everyone has different views and priorities and lines to draw. But most of us need to get transport or baby formula or palm oil derivatives or fish from wherever…and this is all getting so complicated.

    So why not have a JustNotGiving.com? Someone can then declare:

    “I never eat Non FairTrade chocolate”: 3 credits*
    “I never eat non-sustainable Atlantic Hake”: 2 credits*
    “I use Uber”: -5 credits*

    and then all square, they can blog or comment without having to justify their use of Uber.

    *I hear that economists already have an algorithm to determine what the credits should be for each item

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