Uber's New Features Put a Focus on Rider Safety

Uber riders in some cities will soon be able to text 911 directly from the app and automatically transmit details about their locations and the vehicles they’re in to emergency responders.

The features, announced Thursday by Uber, are among a raft of safety updates planned for the next six months, as the ride-hail company readies to release a report detailing sexual assaults and other serious safety incidents involving Uber drivers and riders.

Uber also previewed three features to debut by early next year to help riders ensure they’re in their assigned drivers’ vehicles before their rides begin. The changes follow a March incident when a driver pretending to work for Uber allegedly killed a college student after she got into the wrong car. An opt-in PIN feature will prompt riders to give drivers the correct four-digit code before the driver can begin the ride. An ultrasonic signal feature, still under development, would allow drivers’ and riders’ phones to silently confirm a match before beginning the ride. A new facial-recognition-powered driver ID process will force drivers to more “actively” confirm that they’re the person who is using the account, by blinking, smiling, and turning their heads for the camera.

In cities where emergency responders can respond to text messages, Uber riders will soon be able to text to 911 from inside the app.

Illustration: UBER
Uber announced plans for the report on sexual assaults in May 2018, but didn’t specify when it would be released; an Uber spokesperson said Thursday that there’s still no release date for the report, because compiling it proved more difficult than the company anticipated. At a Wednesday briefing, safety product head Sachin Kansal declined to discuss how often users find themselves in dangerous situations during Uber rides, and how often they use the company’s in-app tools to contact either law enforcement or the company.
An investigation by the Washington Post published this week found that the contractors assigned to investigate and resolve harassment and assault claims faced time pressures from Uber management, and that Uber had allowed drivers facing multiple complaints of assault to continue to drive on the platform. Last year, CNN reported that at least 103 US Uber drivers had been accused of assaulting or abusing their passengers since 2014.

Uber riders can opt in to a new PIN feature, which they can use to confirm they're in the right car.

Illustration: UBER
Transmitting live Uber data to emergency responders isn’t new. The ride-hail company announced a partnership with the emergency tech company RapidSOS last year that allows riders who call 911 through Uber’s in-app safety toolkit to immediately send more accurate location data. San Francisco began using the tech this April, but a spokesperson for the city’s Emergency Management department says no rider has yet used the tool. This, Kansal says, is probably good news. The 911 call and text feature is “one that, as a product owner, I hope never gets used, because we don’t want people to have emergencies,” he says.