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Why your Uber app is lying to you about available cars

Updated Jul 31st, 2015 2:41PM EDT
Uber App

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When you fire up Uber and see a bevy of  cars seemingly hovering around your location, many of the cars depicted on your screen may not even be anywhere close. As it turns out, there are times when the vehicle icons populating the Uber app on your phone may be nothing more than phantom cars meant to trick you.

So if you’ve ever wondered why you sometimes have to wait 10 minutes for a pick-up when there is seemingly an abundance of cars in your immediate vicinity, we finally have an explanation for you thanks to two new reports that surfaced this week.

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First off, a Vice report on this very phenomenon explains that these phantom cars are the result of a purposefully implemented strategy designed to prevent users who open up the Uber app and see no vehicles on the map from considering other transportation options. In other words, by putting phantom cars on the map, Uber can subtly condition users to patiently remain within the app.

Interestingly enough, when an Uber driver profiled in Vice’s story brings up this issue to Uber’s support staff, she was given a rather surprising answer.

“The app is simply showing there are partners on the road at the time,” the staffer wrote in an email. “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. Once a rider request a trip there will be actual information about the partners [sic] location showing up in the app.”

Ah, a visual effect that just so happens to be, as Uber’s employee readily admits, exceedingly misleading.

All the same, Uber did make a point of noting that their engineers are working hard to implement a true “real-time view of the availability of Uber partners in the area.”

Not to be outdone, Slate this week also published a piece detailing the reasoning behind Uber’s fleet of phantom cars. According to the report, the depiction of cars on the Uber app is meant to convey a simulated portrayal of supply and demand in real time.

“Instead, these phantom cars are part of a ‘visual effect’ that Uber uses to emphasize the proximity of drivers to passengers,” Tim Hwang and Madeleine Clare Elish write. “Not surprisingly, the visual effect shows cars nearby, even when they might not actually exist. Demand, in this case, sees a simulated picture of supply.”

All this being said,  you’d be well advised not to take the depiction of cars on the Uber app at face value.

UPDATE: Uber has since reached out to us with an official statement on the matter. The statement reads as follows:

“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.”

Yoni Heisler Contributing Writer

Yoni Heisler has been writing about Apple and the tech industry at large with over 15 years of experience. A life long expert Mac user and Apple expert, his writing has appeared in Edible Apple, Network World, MacLife, Macworld UK, and TUAW.

When not analyzing the latest happenings with Apple, Yoni enjoys catching Improv shows in Chicago, playing soccer, and cultivating new TV show addictions.

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