Uber is being accused of placing ghost cars, those that do not really exist, on its app display when customers access the service from their location. Uber has admitted to the practice, but says it is not intended to fool users.
When Uber users access the taxi alternative app in urban areas, it appears as if there is always an Uber driver ready to pick them up. The display always seems to show several Uber cars hovering around the area, indicating that a ride is just around the corner, but that isn't always the case. Researchers have discovered that the cars pictured on the app are not always real, and they believe the company is intentionally manipulating users into believing there are more cars and drivers available than there actually are.
New York data researcher Alex Rosenblat, who analyzed the app, explained: "If a potential passenger opened up the app and saw no cars around, she might take another cab service. But if she saw a cluster of cars seemingly milling around on the same street, she's more likely to request a ride."
"What the passenger app shows can be deceptive," according to Rosenblat, who found that Uber drivers "across multiple forums discuss the fake cars they see on their own residential streets." He cites the case of Heather, an Uber driver who once checked the passenger app and noticed four Uber cars appearing to be driving in her immediate area, although her own driver app showed the closest available car was actually 17 minutes away. When Heather questioned the company, she was told that the passenger app was actually showing a "screen saver" meant to indicate that there were Uber drivers on the road at the time.
When Uber was contacted for comment, they gave a number of different explanations, none of which made reference to the cars as simply a screen saver. Instead, they claimed that latency causes the app to not always be accurate in real-time, that only the nearest eight cars are displayed to avoid screen clutter and that in certain "volatile situations," the location of the driver is not actually displayed until a ride is actually ordered by a user.