How Uber's new safety features aim to stop murders, kidnappings and other crimes

Uber has upgraded its in-app security features to better use technology to protect riders.

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After hundreds of sexual assault allegations and the murder of a woman who entered the car of a man posing as a driver, Uber recently rolled out new safety features to better protect passengers and drivers from harm. These include the ability to text 911 from the app during a ride, and new tools to verify that riders are getting into the right car. 

"Our commitment to safety is long term," said Sachin Kansal, senior director of product management and head of safety products at Uber. "What you will continue to see from us is ongoing commitment and continuing to launch features based on what our users say." 

Riders will soon be able to send a text message to local authorities with one tap that automatically populates trip details such as the make, model and license plate of their driver's car and their location information at the time they send the text, along with the option to type their emergency. The feature will be piloted in Los Angeles in October, and elsewhere in the US in the future. 


The feature was created in direct response to feedback from riders, who said that making a 911 phone call while on a trip can be difficult, Kansal said. "We know very well in product development, we are not going to get everything right in the first shot," he said. "So we spend a lot of time understanding what people like or don't like about our existing features, and we continue to tweak them." 

Starting this month a separate on-trip reporting tool will allow riders to submit non-emergency safety issues, like if a driver makes them feel uncomfortable, during a trip instead of only afterwards. 


Later this year, a feature called Verify your Ride will give passengers a four-digit PIN to verbally provide to the driver before entering a vehicle. Initially, this will be a manual process: When their driver arrives, the PIN will pop up in the app, and the rider can read it to the driver. The driver will enter the PIN into their app. If it's correct, the rider will get a confirmation on their app, and the trip can begin. Though riders have always been able to confirm a car's license plate, this adds an extra layer of protection to make sure you get into the correct car, said Rebecca Payne, senior product manager at Uber working on safety products. 


This ride verification process will eventually happen automatically, using ultrasound technology to instantly recognize the correct car and driver. However, Uber's safety team is still working to optimize the feature to handle background noise and music that could interfere with a phone's ability to emit or receive sound, and secure the permissions needed to access the microphones of riders and drivers, Payne said. It's expected to be available in early 2020. 

"There is more work to be done on that side to make that verification process almost magical," Payne said. "But for now we want to enable riders to get that extra layer of security." 


Real-time driver ID checks -- in effect since 2016 -- ask drivers to submit a selfie periodically to confirm their identity, using Microsoft technology to compare the selfie to their profile photo. A new liveness detection check will be able to determine if the person in the selfie is live and present, instead of using an old photo. 

The liveness check asks drivers to perform certain simple gestures like blinking, smiling, or turning their head in a random order. It uses technology created in-house with capabilities built into Android and iOS to confirm the identity of the driver from these gestures, Kansal said. This will be available in the coming months. 

"It's really important for riders to have an awareness of all the safety features available to them," Payne said. The company has rolled out more notifications within the app to alert riders about safety functionality (and riders can expect more as these new features become available). Users can access all available safety features in the Uber Rider Safety Toolkit by tapping the shield icon on the rider map. 

Building trust in rideshare companies

The digital features built into ridesharing apps have always been part of their allure, said Shauna Brail, director of the Urban Studies Program at the University of Toronto, who has studied rideshare companies. "The ability to rate drivers and passengers, know the color and license plate of the car in advance, and track a route in real time contributes to the building of trust between firms and passengers," Brail said. "Ride-hailing firms, not unlike other consumer-oriented businesses, need to continually work to maintain trust." 

Adding technology-based safety features is not just appropriate, but necessary, Brail said. While the transportation space is traditionally highly regulated by local governments, the features introduced by rideshare firms can later become legal requirements, she added. (For example, after Uber rolled out a digital reminder pilot program for drivers and passengers to check for bike riders before exiting the vehicle in May, regulators in Toronto wrote it into policy, Brail said.)

While new features like these are positive steps toward improving safety, advocates and attorneys litigating sexual assault cases against rideshare companies have also called for dashboard cameras, fingerprint background checks and face-to-face interviews with drivers

"There may be an argument to be made for having cameras inside the vehicle," said Gabe Klein, the former commissioner of the Chicago and Washington DC departments of transportation. "Just as we have body cameras on police these days, whether you feel like it's fortunate or unfortunate, it does serve as a deterrent. If you know the majority of vehicles you get into have a camera monitor, your behavior as a passenger or driver will likely be better." 

Uber and other rideshare companies should create a system of checks and balances to ensure drivers don't have criminal records or a history of sexual harassment -- and make sure it is actually enforced, Brail said. "With a treasure trove of data at their disposal, there is no reason for firms to permit drivers on their platforms who have a history of offences," Brail said. 

One of the complications, of course, is that Uber drivers are not considered employees of Uber, Klein said. However, California recently became the first state to mandate app-based companies like Uber must treat contracted workers as employees instead of freelancers. This may also spread to other states and cities in the coming years, Klein said. 

"If folks are classified as employees, it is a different level of responsibility and liability, as a company that is providing employment to people versus it being a technology platform that people are using," Klein said. Stepping up background checks for drivers is also key, he added.

"Any time you're buying any product or service, you should be cognizant of the risks and rewards," Klein said. "The combination of these new enhancements within the app for safety and people being aware of their surroundings and making sure they're getting into the right vehicle is important." 

This story originally posted on Oct. 4. 

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