Uber announces new tools to make pickups less of a headache

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Uber is rolling out a new suite of tools that are designed to enhance communication between drivers and riders and make tricky pickups much less stressful.

So much can go wrong after you tap that request button, especially in crowded or nighttime situations. Uber says it’s constantly looking for ways to cut through the clutter and reduce the number of rides that ultimately get canceled — an action that leads to what Uber calls “wasted supply.” The company has been throwing lots of people and resources at its cancellation problem over the years, and today’s announcement is just the latest prong of that effort.

“When the driver has not yet arrived at the pickup location, there’s this resounding sense of stress on their part, because they don’t know what to look for necessarily,” said Richard Yu, Uber’s product manager for rider experiences. “All they have is the pin and the address. We’re trying to give them more context.”

The first new tool is called Spotlight. When you request a ride, you get the make and model of the driver’s vehicles, as well as the license plate number. Riders will typically hold their phones up in the air to signal their driver. But in a crowded situation, like after a sporting event or concert with dozens of smartphones held aloft, that can be a useless gesture.

Now, riders can use Uber’s app to light up their phone screens with a specific color, giving drivers a clearer sense of which levitating smartphone to look for. Drivers will receive a message so they know to look for, say, a yellow screen rather than a pink or green one.

This isn’t the first time Uber has dabbled with color to improve the pickup experience. In late 2016, the company unveiled its first gadget: the Beacon, a Bluetooth-enabled piece of plastic shaped like an Uber logo that drivers could stick to the inside of their windshields. Using the Uber app, riders could choose which color to illuminate the Beacon, helping them easily find their driver amid a sea of similar-looking ride-sharing vehicles.

It was an interesting move for the normally asset-light Uber to make, as it required Uber to spend money on manufacturing Beacons and then distribute them to drivers. But the company says it’s still committed to the gadget. If your driver has a Beacon, that will take precedence over the new Spotlight feature, Uber says. As of this week, Beacons are now available in 14 cities.

Uber’s also providing a better way to communicate your location to your driver. You can either send a message in the app with an extra detail, like “I’m wearing a red hat” or “I’m standing on the corner,” or you can choose from a list of canned messages like “be right there.” Of course, too much messaging can be distracting to drivers, so the app will read them aloud, and responding will only require a quick tap of the app.

Lastly, Uber says it now guarantees that all pre-scheduled pickups will be on time. For years, Uber resisted adding the option to schedule rides in advance, arguing it would defeat the purpose of having an on-demand ride-hailing service. But around 2016, the company caved and began allowing users to book trips up to 30 days in advance.

Under the new system, if your driver fails to show up at the scheduled time, Uber will give you $10 that you can put toward your next trip. Most people use Uber spontaneously, so this is likely intended to boost Uber’s reputation as a reliable car service for airport runs and the like.

Uber is also engaged in a quieter effort to improve pickups by inventing new software tools to fix the problem with GPS accuracy in big cities. That project, known as Shadow Maps, is currently being tested in dozens of cities in North America, and it’s also starting to integrate with the new Uber driver app, too.

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