Uber Drivers Hacking the System to Cause Surge Pricing

Interesting story about Uber drivers who have figured out how to game the company's algorithms to cause surge pricing:

According to the study. drivers manipulate Uber's algorithm by logging out of the app at the same time, making it think that there is a shortage of cars.

[...]

The study said drivers have been coordinating forced surge pricing, after interviews with drivers in London and New York, and research on online forums such as Uberpeople.net. In a post on the website for drivers, seen by the researchers, one person said: "Guys, stay logged off until surge. Less supply high demand = surge."

.

Passengers, of course, have long had tricks to avoid surge pricing.

I expect to see more of this sort of thing as algorithms become more prominent in our lives.

Posted on August 8, 2017 at 9:35 AM • 27 Comments

Comments

BsofAugust 8, 2017 9:46 AM

Maybe managing the whole society with intrinsically imperfect algorithms isn't such a good idea after all.

foobarAugust 8, 2017 9:52 AM

that article linked at the end about people avoiding surges sounds to me like they're actually avoiding the gaming of the drivers... not a natural surge after a big event...

Because... a real event would cause a longer surge, not a 5 min or less one. It's the driver-gamed ones that would be so short... they all log off at once, surge! 5 min later, they all log back in... surge over!

GMSAugust 8, 2017 10:32 AM

Seems that the company that came to destroy a broken system ist not fit for such a task itself.

NinjaAugust 8, 2017 12:59 PM

That would need one heck of a coordination here considering there are tons of drivers around anytime of the day. They'd end benefiting drivers outside of the 'gang'. This can be solved by implementing a 'temp-ban' after they logout?

cgAugust 8, 2017 1:50 PM

It's called an app.

When you take your time and do something right, you are proud of your work, and when you present your results, you enunciate and pronounce the full word: application.

Ven'TatsuAugust 8, 2017 1:50 PM

Can we coin the term 'Micro-Strike' for this? Tiny short work stoppages to force temporary increases in pay.

WaelAugust 8, 2017 4:09 PM

Passengers, of course, have long had tricks to avoid surge pricing.

From the linked article:

Just wait five minutes, or cross the road, and the surge notification could disappear.

Nice to know! Will try it next time.

So why did the passenger cross the road?

DroneAugust 9, 2017 12:45 AM

This is news? Here in Indonesia, organized ride-share price manipulation by drivers has been going on since day-one. It's automated now so drivers load a mesh-colluding app just to game the ride-share pricing algorithm. For now the user base isn't big enough to make a big impact. But there's nothing to stop it from growing.

RachelAugust 9, 2017 3:19 AM

Dirk

Is anyone at that company actually not a crook?


I am sure we all appreciate where you are coming from. However would you care to elucidate your statement? Not least to supply me with more arguments whenever I try (unsuccessfully) to articulate similar, to those around me

I get really angered by the whole 'Sillicon Valley! Innovate! Disrupt! Tech Stocks! Start ups! the world is oh such a better place now, because of us!'

Dirk PraetAugust 9, 2017 9:32 AM

@ Rachel

However would you care to elucidate your statement?

Seven things horribly wrong with Uber according to Huffington Post, and which pretty much reflects my own view on them. The biggest problem I have with them is that they are dodging regulation - and thus falsifying competition - under the claim of being a technology, not a transportation company. Which is downright horse manure. On top of the reasons already given in the article, I'd add

  1. Taking a $1.6 billion investment from Goldman Sachs, by many considered to be probably the most evil entity on the planet.
  2. Hiring Goldman Sach bankers in executive positions.
  3. The aggressive way Uber is data mining and sharing its unwitting customers data in an effort to bypass even Facebook and Google.

Granted: many traditional taxi companies have an unfair monopoly, overcharge their customers and hire dodgy nitwits hardly able to express themselves in any language. For a marginally lower fair, Uber in essence just added new and innovative ways to screw over in an insidious manner not just their customers, but their employees, industry regulation and social security systems too. Whilst I do see a lot of potential in certain "sharing economy" applications (e.g. car sharing), Uber's implementation thereof reeks of unbridled capitalism with an utter disregard for customers, employees and anything else that gets in their way, all of it deceptively presented as "disruptive technology" to drooling investors.

If nothing else, you do have to give them credit for being a pioneer in exporting some of the more questionable business models from the digital world to meat space. Including the ability to swoon gullible customers that have no idea what's happening behind the curtains.

Nick PAugust 9, 2017 10:42 AM

@ Dirk Praet

Your comment on Uber just glosses over the fact that they created a revolution in getting rides with benefits to consumers and drivers. Out where I'm at, the taxi companies were expensive with poor, customer service. Most people drive in this area but those that didn't want to weren't about to call at taxis. They'd arrange rides with people they trust negotiating back and forth on who pays or covers who. Uber changed that with all kinds of people using it for its price, customer service, and fact the drivers are always a few minutes away. The drivers we've asked about it all like it, too. There are some Lyft drivers out here *I heard* but I'm not sure. Uber dominates.

So, sure it's an evil company that's better off disappearing. Yet, it take a lot of positive benefits with it unless another company or series of them pulls off something similar in the areas it's operating. Which might be hard without VC money to create the advertising that builds new brands. Just the number of drunk drivers it's gotten off the road in my area seems worth having it. Better than the police at that and less risky than the civilian, "drunk, driver, terminator patrols." One can get their ass kicked or killed doing the latter even though lucrative. ;)

Dirk PraetAugust 9, 2017 12:37 PM

@ Nick P

Your comment on Uber just glosses over the fact that they created a revolution in getting rides with benefits to consumers and drivers.

I don't think anyone is contending that Uber did in fact come up with a revolutionary and much-needed concept to challenge traditional cab companies both on prices and service. The way they implemented that concept, however, in my opinion is just pure evil.

And which doesn't need to be that way: there's now plenty of companies all over the globe making a very decent living out of car pooling, car sharing, bike sharing, home sharing, you name it. All while respecting local laws and regulations, their employees rights and their customers privacy. And without opening the door to the Devil's money and henchmen.

neillAugust 9, 2017 6:00 PM

the biggest lie is that uber calls this 'ride sharing' to get around regulations

NYC cabbies pay hundreds of thousands $ for their 'medallion' licenses, but most time you'll get a pro driver that knows the city (besides the language barriers)

long time ago in athens, greece, when you saw a cab you just yelled your destination at the driver, and when he was going anywhere closeby, he stopped to let you in, at times with a couple of strangers already in the cab - everyone paid a few bucks - now that's real 'ride sharing' with the mutual benefit of less cost, and less traffic (pollution etc)

EndepAugust 10, 2017 7:38 AM

Nick P, Dirk Praet,

Is taxi service really that shite in your countries?

I live in what may be described as a 3rd world country but I can't really complain about the taxis here. How come the West have such a problem?

RachelAugust 10, 2017 12:15 PM

Nick P, Dirk Praet Human Being

Grateful for thefeedback on Uber-Alles, it's exactly what I was interested to learn.Have decided to open a folder on the topic collecting articles and comments such as yours and the variety of Mr Schniers posts. Actor Edward Norton is an early-stage investor in Uber-Alles, incidentally.
Another angle is via an article I am fairly sure Nick P shared here last year or maybe JG4s naked capitalism. It was an core progammer from the beta days who described how dysfunctional the work culture was. The piece largely focused on her experiences of discrimination as a woman, but to be clear she believably established she didn't believe she was any different from others - it was only
that she was treated as different. Skipped over for reward and promotion and eventually left as did all the other women that were responsible for making Uber-Alles what it is. I have never used the service before, but am extremely offended by the notion of being taxed an extra dollar to ensure one has a proper driver! Outrageous! WTF sort of a buisness model!? A layer there of shifting responsibiity 'you don't like GBH, well you could have payed extra but you chose not to...'

If there is an accident and property or people are harmed, there is
a chance the passenger won't be covered by insurance. And can you imagine -
Uber-Alles may even try to legally establish the accident was the liability of the passenger themselves!! The terms of service completely provide for such a scenario as they shift all responsiblity on the fare payer. Remember that next time you climb in the back.

One of the most salient points for me was your closing comment Dirk - about people being dazzled by appearances and having no idea whats going on behind the scenes. The sad fact is people will probably never have the wool fall from their eyes when it comes to Uber-Alles, such is its success.
Nick P I had to decipher your comments about 'driver-drunk-terminator' - are you
suggesting locals employ vigilante groups to punish people who insist on drink driving? Never heard of such, unbelievable. Do the groups wear V for Vendetta masks I wonder. Norway and possibly some of its neighbours are no-nonsense with zero tolerance. If one is apprehended with *any* alcohol in the blood whilst driving, it's straight to jail plus an incapacitating fine
To respond to the poster from the 'third world country', I understand that yes, in San Francisco taxi service has been a major malfunction for residents for a long time, which is exactly what birthed Uber-Alles. I think one error is the assumption those exact conditions and solutions can be superimposed universally. Ever been to Manila?

Finally, if you drink - don't park. Accidents cause people.

cgAugust 10, 2017 12:28 PM

Ven'Tatsu • August 8, 2017 1:50 PM

Can we coin the term 'Micro-Strike' for this? Tiny short work stoppages to force temporary increases in pay.

Yep. "Brogrammers." It's some sort of international bro-hood of New York cabbies.

They're bros. I'd call them brothers, but the docs cut their "other" parts off at birth, and left them "bros."

Nick PAugust 10, 2017 1:56 PM

@ endep

re taxi service

I'm in a suburban area where taxi experience might be a bit different than big cities. They charge quite a bit of money. It can be hard to get them reliably. The customer service isn't good. They're also usually immigrants that seem to have a disdain for us. The Uber experience is opposite across the board. Even with the immigrants since they're nicer to maintain a positive rating by customers. Having a larger supply of drivers, competition among drivers and a reputation to protect seem to be the factors driving better service.

@ Rachel

re Drunk Driver Terminator patrols

They're not so violent haha. The idea is that police can't be everywhere, spotting drunks for police is straight-forward since it's hard to hide drunkenness, and making money on the side is nice. So, here's how it worked long ago when I researching civilian crimefighting.

DDT patrols operated in small teams. They went to bars where they just socialized with others. Just drank a bit less and more slowly. The bar will generally keep serving some drunks more and more for financial gain even knowing they'll get behind the wheel. Operators estimate probably drunkenness by amount they drank vs weight vs behavior. If a drunk is about to leave, a team member will go outside to discretely film them getting into the driver's seat along with the license plate. If they drive off, the team member then uses cell phone (not radio due to scanners!) to call in the make/model in hopes the police pull the person over.

If they did and did ticket/arrest, there will usually be a public record of that. The organization employing the DDT's then files a lawsuit against that drunk for time involved, emotional distress, or whatever they can to profit on the event. The fee requested is usually around $500 or tied to amount they make a week. Theoretically I read one could pull $100k a year in an area with lots of bars and drunks if they hit them every week. If the same bar is involved many times, then the organization sues the bar for recklessly, consistently serving people too drunk. These suits would be around $25,000. So, the combination of suits against drunk drivers and predatory bars combine to pay the DDT people well in deterring drunk driving in the area without increased public spending on cops.

Needless to say, bar owners or patrons finding out a person is doing DDT can be very dangerous for that person. People getting their asses kicked isn't unheard of. Being really stealth, combat-trained, and most importantly able to assess when to leave a hostile crowd before needing combat are good prerequisites. I did find it to be an interesting concept so long as courts don't reward vigilantes who take it too far being reckless or predatory themselves.

@ Dirk Praet

I can't remember if I've discussed the DDT concept with you before. I'm interested in your take on it given folks who hang around in and look after bars often have stronger-than-average reactions to the concept or ideas for implementation details.

Dirk PraetAugust 10, 2017 6:35 PM

@ Nick P

I can't remember if I've discussed the DDT concept with you before.

We actually have such a system here, be it that it's not run by concerned citizens but by (mostly foreign) prowler gangs closely monitoring known wino bars, clubs and other events where a lot of drunks are hanging out. Instead of calling the police, they trail single suspects who then - quite often caught off guard by a scantily clad female accomplice - get mugged and robbed of their wallet, phone and car keys. This will effectively prevent them from driving home drunk, and - if really unfortunate - also make them lose the car itself if it was parked in the close vicinity. (Think flashing car lights when pressing the car key)

Historically, DUI over here used to be a minor offense you got a friendly warning for when caught. Which hardly ever happened, unless you had caused an accident. Over the weekend, it was even less of a problem because patrolling LEO's in general were as drunk as the folks they pulled over and couldn't arrest the entire adult population anyway.

Eventually, civilization caught up with us and saw consecutive health secretaries trying to outbid each other with ever more draconian legislation. Nowadays, DUI carries monster fines, temporary or permanent loss of drivers license, mandatory alcohol locks, car forfeiture, and jail time. Fines grow exponentially for repeat offenders. It's just become way too risky, especially because there's alcohol checkpoints constantly moving all over the place. Most people either assign a dedicated alcohol-free driver for the night, go out on their bikes, take a cab back home or call a volunteer organisation called Responsible Young Drivers to get back.

Nick PAugust 10, 2017 8:55 PM

@ Dirk Praet

Damn! First part sounds like the thugs in my nearby city. The resulting solution sounds similar to, but better than, the situation here in the U.S.. Minus Uber as I mentioned given more people opt for it than cabs. Thanks for the fascinating reply. :)

Dirk PraetAugust 11, 2017 5:03 AM

@ Nick P

Minus Uber as I mentioned given more people opt for it than cabs.

Over here, Uber is currently operating in a somewhat grey area ever since a Belgian court in 2015 ruled they were in breach of taxi regulations and which resulted in a partial ban. This has negatively impacted the number of drivers who ever since face legal repercussions on top of the already existing verbal and physical abuse by formally accredited taxi drivers.

In 2014, a Barcelona cab company initiated an unfair competition lawsuit that made its way all up to the European Court of Justice. Three months ago, Advocate General Maciej Szpunar dealt a heavy blow to Uber saying that, in his opinion, Uber is not an "information society service" but a transportation company and thus falls under applicable regulation. Although his advice is not binding, the ECJ judges generally follow the Advocate General and which is thus expected to be the outcome of the final ruling later this year.

Since the ECJ is one of the last institutions Goldman Sachs holds no sway whatsoever over, this doesn't bode too well for Uber, that as a consequence will have to adapt its business model or pull out of the EU altogether. On top of that, the GDPR will impose severe restrictions on covert PII collection of their customers.

@ Endep

Is taxi service really that shite in your countries?

Arguably, taxi service has improved ever since the arrival and legal shenanigans of Uber. Quite some companies have cleaned up their acts and have gotten rid of dodgy drivers unable to express themselves in the local language, ripping off customers or moonshining as drug runners. A friend of mine - a former legionnaire with anger management issues - got fired for assaulting an abusive customer who had refused to pay and subsequently got locked up in the trunk and delivered to the local police station.

MaxAugust 13, 2017 3:36 PM

You have the nerve to make me scroll to the top on an iPhone to find out what your blog is called? You're insane!

Now having got that out of the way, I
Have actually been told of this hack by two different Uber drivers who were as pleased as punch! I alerted Uber but they don't seem to care. My guess is they will simply lock the driver out if this happens too much. Fight tech with tech. My bet is Uber is smarter than a bunch of Uber drivers - what is the collective noun?

WaelAugust 13, 2017 4:06 PM

@Max,

You have the nerve to make me scroll to the top on an iPhone to find out what your blog is called? You're insane!

Not insane. Just an assumption we're adept at using our devices. It's a technical forum, after all.

To jump to the top of a page (in order to get back to the browser bar, search bar, or the site's navigation), simply tap the clock at the top center of the iPhone or iPod touch's screen twice.

This works on mail and other applications, too.

Courtesy of: https://www.lifewire.com/using-safari-iphone-browser-2000784

There are other utilities that allow you to jump to the middle, the top, and the bottom. Search for activator.

WaelAugust 13, 2017 4:16 PM

There are more Uber hacks drivers use to gain an advantage over their competition. The use of fake location apps was not an uncommon practice used to show that their car was closer to a passenger who waited at the arrivals terminal of an airport. Drivers, you know, cannot wait at the airport. I know of someone who set his location like a mile or two from SFO while he waited at his apartment 10 miles away.

Uber, I think, was able to detect, warn, and deactivate the driver. They "fixed" this problem about two or three years ago.

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