Uber Phantom Cabs

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Uber. The first on-demand taxi app that I tried and I was hooked from day one. I am not counting the Meru app as it was never an on-demand offering and certainly not such value for money.
Uber to me has always been about super convenience. Recently there have been days when I have used Uber 4-5 times in one day (hotel to airport to office to hotel etc) and not once spoken to any of the drivers. That’s a good thing! If the pickup point and destination are punched into the app clearly and also reasonably well-known, like a hotel or local airport, then there is no need to speak to the driver. It’s worth paying more just for the luxury of not getting repeated calls asking for directions and then arguing about who should be carrying change when attempting to settle the bill. Just get down, check email, forward invoice to corporate expense system for auto upload if required. Job well done. And thanks to numerous benevolent VCs, we don’t even have to pay a premium. Rather it’s available at a discount!
Yet Uber evokes a wide range of emotions from folks and in some countries the range is just ‘hate it’ to ‘can’t stand it’. Then there are stories of how drivers have gone from earning Rs.15,000 per month to over five times that now. They have had their issues to say the least but what fascinated me recently was Uber data and how Uber is using it or choosing to not use it.
It’s a concept termed as Phantom Cabs.
My first sweet surprise was when I came to know some time back that drivers also get to rate the passengers. And if you are rated poorly repeatedly you could get kicked out of the system. Good, now folks can’t be needlessly hostile or rude with drivers and get away with it, I thought.
Uber has a passenger and driver version of the app and at any point in time information is readily available as to where each driver is and where each passenger app is open looking for a ride. Then there’s also huge amounts of historic data on peak usage times, peak usage routes, availability, etc. But showing all this information elegantly poses a problem in numerous ways, including making it available to competing services. So by limiting the use of the data it has, Uber is able to possibly have more control over how passengers and drivers continue to stay in the Uber ecosystem.
Uber God Map
Sometimes even I have noticed that when I open the app I can see 4-5 cabs relatively close by on the map but the Estimated Wait Time indicated is not 4-5 min but more like 12-15 min. I used to think that it’s a conservative estimate or that the driver that finally won the fastest-finger-first game was 15 min away to begin with. But as it turns out, this phenomenon has been noticed and written about by many.
Uber presents a visualisation with a bunch of phantom cars. Admit it, if you opened the app and saw the true picture of just one car 7 min away you are more likely to quickly check on a competing app. If you see half a dozen cars available nearby you are more likely to call for one and wait, assuming you will definitely get a ride. And because of that the driver genuinely sitting alone 7 min away, will pick up your request!
The same way Uber apparently uses the data to define surges and create a surge environment. For some drivers this is an indication of high demand and gives them incentive to move towards that location. Some may choose to serve empty stretches and try their luck. Some drivers stay at just the edge of the surge so as to not create a concentration of supply that will turn off the surge! Passengers too apparently game the system. They request for a ride just outside surge area and then once driver is assigned they call and ask him to come to somewhere inside the original surge area.
It’s amazing the crazy mind-games everyone seems to be playing all the time!
You can read more about this in the original article which I came upon here.
All said and done, it certainly beats being rejected by an auto-rickshaw or taxi driver who gives two hoots where you want to go and refuses your ride in the pouring rain since you don’t happen to live on the route to his preferred destination!
Thank you Uber for that!

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