UberPool is getting smarter in New York City — and less convenient

 From: The Verge

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While cheaper and increasingly popular with riders, UberPool continues to be stressful service for everyone involved. Riders are lured in by dirt-cheap prices, only to become aggravated by frequent detours to pick up new passengers. Drivers complain that UberPool often means more work without necessarily more pay. And Uber’s engineers have been wrestling with how to make the service that’s core to the company’s mission a more seamless and frictionless experience.

As such, Uber’s city team in New York City have been piloting some minor changes that they say accomplish this. In the congested borough of Manhattan, a turn off one of the main north-south avenues down a numbered street can mean getting trapped in hellacious traffic. As such, riders are being prompted to walk to the closest corner or intersection for more convenient pickups, rather than have drivers deviate from their north-south route.

The same goes for drop-offs, where riders are being let out at a proximate corner rather than the exact address of their destination. Uber calls it “dynamic drop-offs,” but the result is pretty plain. If you want those cheaper fares, you’re going to have to be cool with a lot more walking. Uber began testing this feature last year and has since rolled it out in wider use.

Uber is also taking into account things like traffic signals and bus lanes, so drivers don’t have to change lanes or zigzag across the street to pickup or drop-off riders. Based on feedback from drivers, Uber determined that the corner past the light on the right-hand side, for example, was a more stress-free pickup location.

Another change is an emphasis on efficiency over speed. That means recalculating drop-off spots during the trip and reducing the number of turns drivers make per mile by 20 percent, said Ronak Trivedi, product manager at Uber. Overall, Uber’s engineers were building a system that factored in human preferences over algorithmic data. That means listening to drivers about their preferences and then factoring that feedback into UberPool’s core technology. “Previously, we were all about speed,” he told The Verge. “But then we started to acknowledge that computer optimization wasn’t the best experience for riders and drivers.”

To date, these changes have only come in New York City — where 25 percent of all trips are made through UberPool. Trivedi isn’t even sure how scalable they are to other cities. His team is still trying to refine the data to determine what would work in other markets. Uber recently introduced dynamic pickups and drop-offs (more walking) in San Francisco and Washington, DC. And the city teams are being given the flexibility to decide what works for them, and what doesn’t.

Still, many see the ride-hailing giant’s efforts to mimic a public bus route with UberPool as an attempt to kill off mass transit. But Uber argues that its goal is to complement, not kill, public transportation by solving the so-called “first-mile/last-mile challenge,” a phrase used to describe the difficulty in getting people between transit hubs and their homes. There’s evidence that more people are using services like Uber and Lyft in this manner.

But in New York, as subways become more crowded and more prone to breaking down, and buses get slower, will people abandon transit for carpooling? And how will that affect future funding decisions? It’s a huge, unanswered question, and one that probably isn’t too concerning to the engineers at Uber.