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Uber CEO explains why arrival time on the app is never accurate

Uber Arrival Time

Over the weekend, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick took to Twitter to address complaints surrounding overly ambitious and misleading arrival times. Specifically, some users on Twitter expressed frustration that when they first fire up Uber, the app tells them that a ride may be as close as two minutes away, only to see that arrival time shoot up significantly after ordering and confirming a ride.

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While this shouldn’t be much of an issue given that users can freely cancel a requested Uber ride within five minutes of the initial request, consumers these days are apparently quite skilled in magnifying ‘frustrating’ grievances.

So Kalanick on Sunday fired off a series of rapid fire tweets detailing a few reasons (summarized below) why the actual arrival time of an ordered Uber ride may be longer than the app’s initial estimate.

1. During peak times, 90%+ of “all cars are being dispatched to at any given moment w/ 1000’s of requests fulfilled/min.”

2. Some of the cars users see on Uber’s map may be matched before a request is processed

3. “Sometimes you get car that ends up further away than original closest car, sometimes you get closer car than original.”

4. If you happen to be in the suburbs and the closest driver doesn’t accept, “the likely next closest driver is further away” that it might be in a city environment.

Following those explanations, Kalanick added that the most efficient way to minimize the differential between estimated and actual arrival time is to provide users with a “statistically expected time which will result in almost always being different than actual (i.e. wrong), but will be less different/wrong on avg.”

And finishing things off, Kalanick said that the average wait time in major cities for an ordered Uber is about 3 minutes.

On a related note, it’s worth mentioning that all of the vehicle icons users typically see when they open up the Uber app aren’t necessarily there. Rather, they’re intended to provided a simulated portrait of available Uber drivers in real-time. In other words, the cars on your Uber app may not actually exist.

Back in July, an Uber driver asked an Uber support staff member about the issue and was emailed the following response:

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 requests a trip there will be actual information about the partners [sic] location showing up in the app.

As for Uber’s take on the matter, they provided us with the following statement a few months back:

“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 has been writing about Apple and the tech industry at large for over 15 years. A life long 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.