NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — I recently tried to use Uber to transport a large group of friends. The service worked easily to transport us to a local bar, but when we tried to leave, things went awry. [FYI: I occasionally use Uber in my capacity as an editor for LCT to keep tabs on the service and continue researching how it functions from a critical standpoint].
Ordering the vehicle was no problem. Upon dispatch the app gave me the driver’s info and I watched as the car approached my pin location. The map showed the car slowly approach where it said I was, until it was right in front of me, but when I looked up there was no car to be seen.
I peered at the name of the cross streets I was at, and realized the app had pinned my location incorrectly. I called the driver to tell him the cross streets, and because I was not familiar with the area, I had no idea where it was the app had incorrectly labeled my whereabouts, or how far away the driver was.
The driver had arrived at some random location where it was saying I was, but I was in fact nowhere near there. Once I told him where I actually was, he seemed to recognize the cross streets and said he would be there soon.
Unfortunately my group had grown inpatient waiting in the cold, and a nearby mini-van cab suddenly became a golden chariot, opening its doors for us and taking us home.
This was the first time the app had done this. I had to cancel the trip, and sent an apology to the driver through text. However, I still incurred a cancellation fee from Uber.
I have tried Googling to see if other riders have voiced this similar problem, and although I didn’t find commiseration stories, I did learn more about how Uber is able to pinpoint locations at all.
In spite of my mishap experience, the app incorporates startlingly well with GPS code-mapping providers such as Apple iOS Location Awareness, Google Maps Geocoding API, Bing Maps Geocode, and Mapquest Geocode. They all work similarly; by using GPS to pinpoint the latitude and longitude of a given signal.
The part where it gets tricky, though, is reverse-locating this coordinate so that it displays an address. The main problem arises in the accuracy of a given map’s data to choose the correct address. Sometimes homes or buildings go through renovations, and addresses are added or lost, or streets become renamed. There are a multitude of issues that occur with Geo-locating that Uber explains on its blog here, as well this article from CNN on why GPS sometimes fails.
It’s interesting to read a little behind the coding and programming that makes Uber work. And although it’s been fairly consistent in performance, there is still room for bugs to arise and applications to behave unpredictably.
I also own up to the fact that it could also have been user error. Sometimes settings on smart phones can interfere with GPS functions, but with such complex devices, it’s safe to assume there will always be a chance for inadvertent mishaps.
— Tim Crowley, LCT senior editor
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