Uber Has Started Monitoring Smartphones To See When Drivers Are Speeding

“New safety solutions are always in the works."

02/01/2016 08:02 am ET
PHILIPPE LOPEZ via Getty Images

If you’re a regular Uber user, you’ve definitely had a bad driver experience at least once: they rolled through stop signs, had a car that smelled like weed, or sped through school zones. But if you’re like most customers, you may have still given that driver 5 stars, because you didn’t want him or her to lose their job. Uber users regularly hand out inflated ratings, undermining the mechanism that makes us willing to get in a car with a stranger in the first place. But now, Uber has a new way to monitor terrible drivers, relying on their smartphones instead of their passengers.

The Guardian reports that Uber is piloting a new way to check the quality of its drivers — by monitoring their driving, speed and distractedness via their smartphones, using the devices’ geolocation information, accelerometers and gyrometers (which reveal whether a person is, for example, moving their phone around while driving).

It’s similar to a system pioneered by rental car companies, which installed surveillance technology in their cars to monitor drivers more than a decade ago. But Uber is relying on drivers’ phones, rather tracking equipment plugged into a car’s engine (meaning it might be less precise, as phone tracking can sometimes be).

For now, Uber is rolling out the monitoring in a very limited fashion: as a pilot program in Texas, which started in November 2015, and only when a customer complains about a driver’s performance. Here’s how chief security officer Joe Sullivan describes it in a blog post:

Gyrometers in phones can measure small movements, while GPS and accelerometers show how often a vehicle starts and stops, as well as its overall speed. If a rider complains that a driver accelerated too fast and broke too hard, we can review that trip using data. If the feedback is accurate, then we can get in touch with the driver. And if it’s not, we could use the information to make sure a driver’s rating isn’t affected.

Sullivan, a federal prosecutor who headed up security at Facebook before heading to Uber last year, is well acquainted with data monitoring to make the world a safer place. Under Sullivan’s watch, Facebook began scanning private messages to bust sexual predators.

Sullivan states in the blog post that in the future, Uber will use this smartphone data more proactively—for example, the company could send warnings to drivers if their phones’ accelerometers show evidence of repeated speeding.

Uber doesn’t even have to ask for extra smartphone permissions from drivers; it already has access to all the data it needs from the current version of the app. Drivers in Texas only found out that they were part of the pilot program, and that their speed and braking could be reviewed by Uber, when Uber reached out to them.

To respect the privacy of its independent contractors, Uber might want to alert its drivers that it can use their smartphone data this way. Most drivers likely assume that the Uber app is only drawing data from their smartphones to tell them how best to meet up with passengers, not to potentially review their every turn, swerve, acceleration and abrupt stop. Otherwise, Uber might find itself hit with yet another lawsuit.

“New safety solutions are always in the works,” writes Sullivan. “[S]o keep your eyes out for the next new program in your city.”

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