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Uber Monitors When Drivers Move Their Phones, But the Results May Be Faulty

Uber wants to encourage safe driving practices, but drivers are annoyed and say the system doesn’t work well.

by Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai
May 26 2016, 8:20pm

Image: Andrey_Vasiliskov/Shutterstock

In the span of ten days days, an Uber driver in North Carolina got four text messages from the ride-sharing giant.

"Phone movement detected during your recently completed trips," read the texts. "Using a phone mount can help keep your phone stationary, leading to safe rides and better experiences for you and your drivers."

The texts are part of a new program designed to track driver's phone movements and encourage them to drive more safely, avoiding distractions from their phones. Uber first piloted the program in Houston, Texas, but the company has recently rolled it out across the country.

But, the driver told me, there was a problem with these texts: they were wrong.

"The texts always come at 10am," the driver, who asked to remain anonymous, told me. "One was actually received THREE days after the last day I had driven. This 'movement detection' system is clearly defective in multiple ways."

He's is not the only one who despises this program.

"I received a text this morning that read 'Phone movement detected.' The telephone was on a mount while I was working, yesterday," a user of the unofficial forum Uber People, wrote in a thread. "I turned it off and put it into the trunk at about 1900 last night. How does FUBAR [Uber] detect a moving telephone that is turned off and in a parked car?"

Another forum user and Uber driver complained that he received two texts "and my cell is mounted so I really don't know what they are talking about."

"How does FUBAR [Uber] detect a moving telephone that is turned off and in a parked car?"

"Ironic that in order to deter distraction is by adding an app feature that sends an even more distracting text message about phone movement; especially when you have to move your phone again to read the notification message....lol!" wrote another user.

In the Uber People forums, there are countless other similar grumbles. Some, however, don't see this as an invasive and unwanted meddling from Uber.

"I don't blame Uber for trying to eliminate drivers from driving with their 'phone on my thigh.' This is extremely unsafe and irresponsible," wrote a user.

There's no denying that distracted driving is a major cause of accidents and deaths in the US. So it's natural that Uber wants to make sure drivers are focused on taking riders safely from point A to B rather than fiddling with their phones. But how good is this system? According to the drivers complaining about it, not so much. And while for now the only consequence is a (perhaps annoying) text, the company could choose to use this as a reason to suspend a driver or punish him some other way. (The company did not respond to a request for comment.)

At the end of the day, this program has a noble goal, but for drivers, it's yet another reminder that Uber knows a lot about what they're doing in their cars—and wants them to change some of their behavior.

The driver in North Carolina complained directly to Uber, and after an automated response, a company support specialist told him that the issues "may have occurred due to a temporary technical glitch," according to the driver.

The support agent then suggested the best solution was to reboot the app.

Uber Earth is Motherboard's exploration of the ways Uber has already changed the world and how it stands to do so in the future. Follow along here.