By nearly all accounts, Uber has been having a tough year. The company has faced steady criticism over its privacy, labor, and spending habits, its IPO and market performance (which hit a new low Tuesday), its reaction to California’s recently passed AB5, and perhaps most notably its safety practices.
Like its smaller rival Lyft, which was named in multiple lawsuits this summer by riders who were allegedly assaulted by drivers and saw little recourse, Uber has responded to rising safety concerns about ride-hails by rolling out new features in this area (while also launching other plans, and putting out separate fires, on the side).
The platform’s most recent additions include last year’s Uber Spotlight, which lets riders display lit-up phone screens in different colors for easier pickups, and has featured in its NYC ads for months; its nationwide roll-out of RideCheck, which includes real-time tools for contacting help or detecting crashes; and a new audio-recording feature being tested in the app, which Uber user Jane M. Wong revealed on Twitter this week.
Some of these tools may help both riders and drivers be safer on the road, and hopefully so; others may seem half-cooked, and could potentially make Uber’s problems even worse—as usual, by putting the onus of safety (and potential risks) onto riders and drivers themselves.
For example, according to Uber’s website, “Spotlight makes it easier for you and your driver to find each other, even in tricky situations. Your phone screen will light up with a preselected color, you will hold your phone up, and your driver will be notified of what color to look for—making your pickup even easier.”
In theory, however, this system could also make it easier for non-Uber drivers that have bad intentions to identify persons who are waiting to be picked up (in other words, lighting up their potential victims).
Depending on what colors or patterns Uber Spotlight uses, it may also be reasonably easy for non-Uber riders with bad intentions to fake the appearance of Spotlight on their phones, giving them easier entry to the vehicles of unsuspecting drivers.
Of course, Uber presumably intends for Spotlight to be used in conjunction with its other safety features and recommended practices, such as making sure that vehicles’ license plate numbers match what’s in the app, as well as the names and faces of assigned drivers and/or riders.
The result, however, is that Uber riders and drivers (and Lyft’s, and Juno’s) are still responsible for their own safety, and in most cases for contacting any help needed, whether they have the presence of mind to confirm all known details or not (and assuming no one has used a false identity, a prepaid credit card, or a friend’s account).
In light of the numerous ride-hail abductions and assaults reported just this year, even the company’s ad for Spotlight—depicting an illuminated woman, as if beneath a blue streetlamp, on a somewhat well lit street at nighttime—seems to emphasize that, at the end of the day, users are vulnerable and alone.
As for Uber’s audio recording feature, which is reportedly still being tested, the thought occurs that riders who feel “uncomfortable” during trips could already have chosen to record their rides using any number of apps, if they wanted to, without Uber’s help. To that end, many Uber and Lyft drivers have chosen to purchase their own dashboard cameras, in fact, as a safety precaution on top of the platforms’ methods of remote support.
Given Uber’s on-record and alleged behavior in response to riders and drivers who’ve been assaulted while using the platform, it also seems worth considering whether audio recorded through the Uber app would be subject to special contractual terms, would be used for other purposes, and could even be used against potential victims.
Last week, an investigation by the Washington Post revealed that in Uber’s Special Investigations Unit, which is tasked with sorting out some of the worst incidents around Uber rides and determining consequences, investigators “are coached by Uber to act in the company’s interest first, ahead of passenger safety, according to interviews with more than 20 current and former investigators.”
In addition, the Post wrote, “agents are forbidden by Uber from routing allegations to police or from advising victims to seek legal counsel or make their own police reports, even when they get confessions of felonies.”
So while these new tools may hopefully help protect riders and drivers from any dangers in the months to come, it also seems likely that a growing number of potential ride-hail users and investors may find it safest to just stay away.