Uber’s mysterious app

September 21, 2015

When I wrote two weeks ago about a frightening experience that a friend experienced on an Uber ride, I was contacted by a second Uber customer who also experienced a scary incident a few days later. I learned something very surprising when I spoke with her: The Uber app has a major flaw that adds more risk to an Uber trip.

Mandy, a resident of the Contra Costa County, east of Oakland, called for an Uber car Aug. 21 to drive her home from a party that she and her husband were attending less than a mile away. She was tired after a stressful workweek, had enough food and drink, and was ready for a good night’s sleep. Her husband remained at the party.

Mandy recounted how she got into the car, and the driver, who received the destination when the car was called, sped off in the wrong direction and told her he was going to take her out for “a good time." Only after she turned on her iPhone and started recording a video of the ride, did the driver reverse direction and drive her home. She then called the police and attempted to reach Uber.

When the police asked her for the make, model and license plate of the car, Mandy looked for the e-receipt on her phone and assumed that the information would be there, since it’s prominently displayed when you order an Uber car. But it wasn’t. Instead, there was just a short summary of her ride and payment.

Now, nearly every article written about Uber mentions that Uber provides the customer with all of this information for the passenger’s safety, and almost everyone assumes it’s part of the record of your trip you get on your phone. As one who has used Uber dozens of time, I assumed it as well.

In fact, Uber notes this on its site under “safety”: “You’ll receive important details about your ride, like contact info for the driver and the license plate of the car. You can track the exact location of the driver and even share details about your trip with anyone who is waiting for you at your destination or just wants to know you are getting home safe.”

With the information gone, Mandy was unable to provide it to the police. When she asked Uber for it, she told me they refused and told her that they would only provide it to the police at their request.

Mandy was told by Uber that her driver is known to have a hearing problem and, based on their investigation, he simply misunderstood her request to take her home. Mandy clearly disagreed, and said that the driver had not misunderstood her, he clearly stated he was “taking her out for a good time.”

Mandy then did some testing of the Uber app. She asked a friend who uses Uber to monitor the functionality of the app on her next ride to determine what information is available on her phone’s Uber app and how it changes between calling for the car and reaching her destination.

Here’s what she discovered:

The first image on the Uber app, once a car is requested, shows the "En Route" view that remains until the Uber driver arrives. It has the driver's photo, the driver's first name, license plate number, make and model of the Uber car and contact information.

Once the customer gets in the car, the driver then clicks "Start" on the app to begin the fare calculation and the trip. This is when the customer’s display-screen changes from "En Route" to "On Trip."

On the "On Trip" view, the driver's picture and first name is still visible, but the make, model and license plate number disappear. Should the passenger need to call for help during the ride, she has no access to the car’s license plate number.

When the driver reaches the destination and clicks, "End" on the app, the fare amount and the rating feedback system appears on the passenger’s phone with a "Leave a Comment" text box. Only the driver's first name is displayed on this screen.

When you later check the records of past rides you’ve taken on Uber, the "My History" image displays a picture of the driver's face, the fare, and make and model of the car. The license plate number is still not listed.

Shortly after, Uber mails a receipt that indicates the route of the trip, fare, driver’s first name and another chance to rate the driver.

You would think that an Uber trip could be made safer by providing the driver and license number not only before, but also both during and after the trip. That way the rider has a better recourse to get help, and the driver, knowing his rider has that information, will be less likely to do anything improper.

I asked Uber why wouldn’t they do this and after five days have not responded.

What can you do about this? Anytime you order an Uber car, before you get in it, take a snapshot of your phone’s display showing the full information.

(On an iPhone, press and hold the on/off button and then quickly press the home button; the image will be saved with your photos. Most Android phones work similarly by holding down simultaneously the on/off button and either the volume down button or home button).

You will now have a permanent record of the driver and car plates, should you need to make a police report. And if you encounter any issues during the ride, you can email the image to a friend, and inform the driver of what you’ve done.

This critical look at Uber is not meant to diminish its brilliant concept. But great ideas are only as good as their execution. And from two victims I’ve personally spoken with, there’s an opportunity to make Uber safer for the customer.

This is my last column on this site. You can still follow my columns at a new site, www.sdtranscript.com, and at my new blog at www.bakerontech.com. I can be reached at pbaker@gmail.com.

More Phil Baker Columns

Uber’s mysterious app

When I wrote two weeks ago about a frightening experience that a friend experienced on an Uber ride, I was contacted by a second Uber customer who also experienced a scary incident a few days later. I learned something very surprising when I spoke with her: The Uber app has a major flaw that adds more risk to an Uber trip.

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Last column with advice to my readers

After more than 12 years, 650 columns and 5 million words, this will be my last column for the San Diego Daily Transcript print edition, as the newspaper under the direction of Publisher Bob Loomis and the Revelle family comes to an end. I’ll continue to cover tech on my new blog at www.bakerontech.com and on my business site, www.techspertsinc.com. I will also provide some commentary for the next few weeks on SDDT’s website.

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