Uber's quest to earn the public's trust just got a little tougher, again.

Passengers looking to catch an Uber may see more cars chugging along the streets of their smartphone screens than are actually in their area, according to Motherboard. The site is calling the virtual cars that lack tangible real-world counterparts “phantom cars.”

Staff of the ridesharing company gave Motherboard conflicting explanations of why some users are reporting seeing, say, four cars in their immediate vicinity when no cars are in sight and the wait time for an Uber is 17 minutes.

An Uber Help staff member said it was because what riders saw was a screen saver -- one that conveniently encourages them to be patient and wait for a ride rather than trying Lyft or Flywheel. Another Uber Help staffer said that if you just zoom in, you’ll get a more accurate representation of how many cars are in your area. A third Uber Help-er was reported as telling a customer that engineers were working on the company’s software to improve the real-time view of available drivers.

The possible reasons relayed in the Motherboard story were innacurate, according to Uber. 

"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," Uber spokesperson Trina Smith wrote in an emailed statement. 

Whatever the reason for the apparent inconsistency between what riders report seeing on the app and what is happening in their vicinities in real life, this isn’t the first time customers’ trust in Uber has been strained.

Surge pricing

When demand goes up, so do prices. Just ask the Los Angeles woman who was reportedly charged $357 for a 14-mile ride across the city. One Uber customer told The Verge that he saw surge pricing as a way of rigging the system, something that favored drivers over riders. (On the flipside of the favoring drivers or riders argument, don’t forget a group of drivers has sued the company to change its employment practices.)

Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick has said the market sets the price. He told Wired that surge pricing kicks in to “maximize the number of trips that happen.” 

Privacy issues

When an Uber executive suggested the company pour resources into investigating the private lives of journalists producing coverage that was critical of the company, that set off an alarm for some consumers worried about their own privacy.

In 2012, Uber posted a now-removed (but still cached) post about how the company can tell when its users are hailing Ubers after one-night stands.

“In a time when our data ends up in databases, people can use it for their own prurient interests,” Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist for the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Washington Post. “Time and time again, people do it.”

“Inefficient routes”

At least a handful of times, Uber drivers have been accused of taking riders on “rides of hell,” some of which could be classified as outright abductions.

There was the customer heading to Midtown Manhattan whose driver took an “inefficient route,” as Uber reportedly deemed it. That route included missed turns, driving in the bus lane and driving in reverse in the middle of traffic, the rider told Gothamist

Another time, a Los Angeles woman reported that her Uber driver kidnapped her when she was drunk and took her to a motel room where she woke up to him touching her suggestively, the Los Angeles Times reported. 

Also in L.A., a woman said her Uber ride took her to an abandoned lot instead of to her home. “Only when she caused a commotion and screamed did he finally return her home. What should have been a quick ride took over two hours,” Valleywag reported.

Published on: Jul 28, 2015