“I know this seems a misleading to you," an Uber staffer tells Vice of the Uber cars you see on the app as you prepare to a hail a car, "but it is meant as more of a visual effect more than an accurate location of drivers in the area." The rider map is just a "screensaver," the staffer continued. "Once a rider requests a trip there will be actual information about the [drivers'] location showing up in the app."
No wonder a driver who's five minutes away always responds instead of the three that are on my block!
Indeed, Uber is not as it may appear. Defiantly a technology company rather than a transportation service, Uber also insists that it's a contractor hub, not an employer. And, as Slate writes, the company's shrugging deference to an algorithm is also a bit of a related facade. Uber has generated "a mirage of a marketplace... an app experience that produces the sensation of independent riders and drivers responding to the natural fluctuations of supply and demand."
That claim pertains in part to the company's surge pricing model, which Uber maintains is purely a function of the marketplace. “[Uber is] not setting the price," CEO Travis Kalanick has said to Wired. "The market is setting the price... We have algorithms to determine what that market is.” However, researchers at Data & Society claim that the supply of Uber drivers is actually mobilized to meet passenger demand ahead of time according to company predictions, complicating Kalanick's claim that Uber's hands are tied.
The "mirage" extends to the plentiful cars shown near customers before they request a ride, though that "screen saver" likely encourages us all to hail more rides. There are plenty nearby, we assume.
That isn't the motive that Uber gives for the misleading presentation. "From a purely engineering problem, trying to fit a lot of fairly complex information fairly intuitively into an iPhone screen [is] without a doubt one of our biggest issues,” Uber data scientist Kevin Novak claimed in a 2014 presentation.
“Our goal is for the number of cars and their location to be as accurate as possible in real time," Uber tells SFist in a statement. "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.”
The revelation could pose another problem for a company already contending with plenty. Some have estimated that reclassifying drivers as employees, which Uber might be forced to do, would cost the company $209 million in California alone. And, over claims by the California Public Utilities Commission that Uber had refused to provide necessary information to regulators, an administrative law judge recommended that Uber be fined $7.3 million and suspended for 30 days in California pending an appeal.