Uber App Uses 'Phantom Cars' To Lure Customers, US Researcher Says

Uber's list of problems may have become a little longer.

US researcher Alex Rosenblat alleges that the company uses 'phantom' cars to give customers a false sense of the number of drivers available at any one location.

As part of a project for Microsoft FUSE Labs, Rosenblat interviewed US-based drivers, who say that there are discrepancies between the driver and the passenger version of the app.

Writing on Vice's Motherboard blog, he quotes Heather, an Uber driver, and her experience of the 'phantom cars.'

Quoting Heather, he writes:

"The app’s map showed four drivers on the streets immediately by her pick-up location. Yet, the estimated wait time for the closest car was 17 minutes, and there were no other drivers in sight."

YouTuber UberMan, also in the US, makes the same observation -- noting how the number of cars available at any one location appears to suddenly show vehicles that are not actually there.

In response to questions around the app's accuracy, one Uber staff member reportedly told Heather that driver locations are meant to be more of a 'screen saver.'

According to Rosenblat's report, the company's email stated:

“The app is simply showing there are partners on the road at the time.

“This is not a representation of the exact numbers of drivers or their location. This is more of a visual effect letting people know that partners are searching for fares.

“I know this seems a misleading to you but it is meant as more of a visual effect more than an accurate location of drivers in the area. It would be better of you to think of this as a screen saver on a computer..."

When we spoke to Uber, a spokesman said "in the UK, the cars you see on the in-app map are the cars that are physically on the road in your dispatch area."

They added: “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.”