How Does Uber Track Drivers? Telematics

It's making driving safer for now, but could help replace drivers entirely.

Uber is using Telematics — sending a phone’s GPS to a central computer for processing — to judge how well its independent contractors drive. If it sounds a little Big Brother for a company that already has notoriously unhappy drivers (and some unhappy passengers as well), that might be true — but Uber claims it’s all about safety.

“In fact, an entire team at Uber focuses on building technology to encourage safer driving,” Uber posted on its Uber Engineering blog on Wednesday. “On Uber Engineerings Driving Safety team, we write code to measure indicators of unsafe driving and help driver partners stay safe on the road. We measure our success by how much we can decrease car crashes, driving-related complaints, and trips during which we detect unsafe driving.”

Ride-hail drivers rely on their smartphones, and now, Uber will rely on the data those smartphones provide.

Eventually, Uber hopes to use the data to know the average time it takes to get somewhere and ask drivers to “curb their enthusiasm” if they drive too fast.

Here’s how it works: Uber will collect data from the driver’s smartphone GPS, accelerometer, and gyroscope. Data is collected in real time, and the driving app will remind drivers to take a nap if it’s a time people are usually tired, and advise drivers to use a phone mount if it appears that the driver isn’t already.

After the trip, drivers are sent post-trip notes that show things like how many times the brakes and gas were hit a little too hard. No more lying about a “bad” driver. Uber. Knows. All.

But the data collection looks a lot like something else that could be useful for Uber in the long run: autonomous driving data. Uber hasn’t stated that the data is being used for its recently debuted autonomous cars, but it’s the type of data that could prove useful.

Every byte of driver data is collected and sent to a central location. The data is stored long-term, and can be used by other services. One example that Uber says the stored data could be used for is the daily city level average of excessively hard braking.

The collection is similar to what George Hotz’s Comm.ai — an autonomous vehicle company — is doing. Comma.ai is using an app called Chffr to crowd-source data from people who willingly download the app and use it while driving. Hotz described Chffr to Inverse as “Dropcam plus Fitbit for your car.”

Other companies working on autonomous technology like Google use sensors on specially outfitting cars to get data. Hotz doesn’t have time for that. What he does have is the ability to use the data from phones collected through the Chffr app (which is essentially the same data that Uber is collecting, but also includes video) to get driving data that is a little messier, but still useful.

Safe driving stats are not too dissimilar from autonomous driving data.

When Uber starts collecting data in the 478 cities Uber operates in around the world, it will have a huge — and continuously growing — data set of how people drive on city streets. It’s the type of data set that companies like Comma.ai, Tesla, Google, and every other company working on autonomy would love to own.

No one has a fleet of drivers collecting data quite like Uber does. Uber is even getting paid while people are collecting that data. And while, for now, the data is being used to improve driver safety, it could be used to replace drivers all together in the future.

Media via Uber, Getty Images / Spencer Platt