Load your Uber app right now in the heart of any big city, and you probably see exactly eight cars circling surrounding blocks. In reality, there may be many more drivers around you, and they might not be in the exact spots the service claims on the map. But as an Uber representative told Co.Design this week, these are white lies the company its customers, both so that you enjoy using the app, and you can’t attack their drivers. But not everyone likes being lied to.
On Monday, Vice’s Motherboard published an exposé on Uber’s map-based UI. Its most cutting claim was that Uber had been fabricating the cars that you see as available in the area. In one screenshot the site published, three Uber drivers were shown cruising down a residential block in the middle of nowhere. Even though they were a stone’s throw from the intended pickup point, somehow the nearest driver was still 17 minutes away. Contacting customer service, Motherboard was told that the cars on the map shouldn’t been considered anything beyond a “screensaver.”
But speaking with Co.Design, an Uber spokesperson maintains that the company has never artificially inflated their supply of available cars in the area, nor does their app present some bogus screensaver. They also offered a more nuanced explanation in form of a public statement: “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,” they said. “Another reason is that the app only shows the nearest eight cars to avoid cluttering the screen.”
Dissecting this response point-by-point, Uber’s general approach to UI actually makes a lot of sense. Positioning vehicles by GPS very quickly is tricky business, so while the company may know there are X vehicles in your generalized area, it might need to deploy more stock animations of vehicles cruising down city streets in lieu of providing exact coordinates for the cars in real time to keep the experience feeling smooth and speedy. Furthermore, do you really want to see fifty cars on your screen, or does that just leave the service feeling chaotic?
“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,” the statement continues. In other words, Uber is fudging the information–sometimes through outright obfuscation. It’s the sort of fake UI trick that’s actually en vogue across apps, and here it seems justified, given the violent ways Uber drivers can be targeted by malicious parties (I myself heard about an Uber car being spit on by a passing taxi driver this week.) It’s easy to imagine how a perfectly accurate map of every Uber driver in the area could create a dangerous situation for these innocent contractors.
Truth be told, no customer really needs to know exactly where those Uber cars are; they just need to know that some of them are around and available for work. And that’s what Uber shows you. Having said that, Uber still isn’t being totally clear about just how much they’re fudging their own maps on general basis–are these cars ever mapped onto the right streets, blocks, or neighborhoods? And customers, even presented with a white lie that probably does more good than harm, can still feel like suckers for buying into it.