UPDATE, 12:19 p.m., 1/3/2016: Uber has been aware of the disappearing fare estimate button for months. Asked on Twitter if it had removed the button, Uber’s Boston account Tweeter to a consumer in October:
“Definitely not. There is currently a bug that is effecting (sic) that feature. Thanks for your patience as we work to fix it!,” @Uber_BOS wrote.
UPDATE #2: Many state laws require Uber to provide fare estimates. Here’s an example. It’s unclear what impact the disappearing fare estimate button bug might have on Uber’s compliance.
UPDATE #3, 1:27 p.m., 1/3/2016: Uber has given me an on-the record comment saying its fare estimate tool was working “as usual” on New Year’s Eve. More below.
It’s become an annual New Year’s Eve tradition: Uber riders complaining about surge price-fueled rides costing hundreds of dollars, and then “capitalists” complaining about the complainers.
“Uber warned you,” the capitalists argue. “You can even get an estimate of the cost right on the app.”
For at least some consumers this New Year’s Eve, that wasn’t true. Uber’s “fare estimate” tool apparently disappeared for some users from the app right when they needed it most — to see how much that 5x or 10x surge multiplier was really going to cost them.
Uber initially declined to comment for this story, but issued a statement on Sunday:
“We’re happy to report that our fare estimate feature was working as usual on New Year’s Eve. The feature is found in different places within the app, depending on the city and products available in that city,” the statement, attributed to an Uber spokesperson, reads.
A faulty or missing fare estimate tool matters a lot in a discussion about whether Uber is simply acting intelligently in a market of temporary scarcity or it is price gouging. Uber frequently points to the estimator tool as its greatest defense against accusations of unfairness. The tool is great, and ordinarily gives Uber consumers a fair prediction of price. But if it’s missing, there’s really no way to know what an Uber ride might cost.
It happened to me. When I tried to book my Uber in New York City on my Android phone a little after 2 a.m., the fair estimate button was gone. After agreeing to a surge multiplier, I had only the option to book a car or ask for Uber’s pool service. I use Uber frequently, and always use the estimate tool, so this was a surprise. I shut down the app and relaunched it several times. While each time I was presented with a different surge multiplier, I never had the option to estimate the fare. I was with a friend, also an Android user, and she had exactly the same experience.
I didn’t think much of it, but I complained the next morning through Uber’s app, and customer support replied quickly to say it was aware of the issue.
“Our team is aware of this issue and we’re working hard to resolve it as quickly as we can,” said a customer support agent to me in a message. “I humbly ask for your patience on this matter…”
The note sounds generic enough that it didn’t convince me there was a widespread issue with the Uber fare estimator tool. But a quick look through Twitter revealed I was far from the only person.
Jessica Wartler of New York City complained to Uber support on New Year’s Eve:
“How the heck do I get a fare estimate on the new @Uber app??? So frustrated right now!!!”
An Uber Twitter account user replied with generic instructions; she replied with a screenshot showing the instructions didn’t work because the estimate button was missing. Eventually, Wartler told me, she took a Lyft instead.
“Very annoying,” she said. She uses an iPhone.
A user in Boston Tweeted about a similar experience.
“@Uber how the heck do I get a fair estimate with this new stupid setup? I only say stupid cause I’m ANGRY.”
A Washington D.C. user complained about the fare estimate tool on Dec 22. Then on New Year’s Eve, he complained that it was still missing, and said he’d use the competition.
“Guess I will be using @lyft tonight since @UberDC never fixed my fare estimator. #UnknownSurgePricing,” said @JamieSmith18. He told me he was also using an iPhone, too.
I’ve talked with an Uber media representative via email and telephone today several times. I provided the firm as much evidence as I could that something was wrong with the fare estimator tool. She said the firm could not comment on the situation by my deadline.
It’s clear from these Twitter interactions that the the firm knew something was wrong, even well in advance of New Year’s Eve. It’s entirely unclear at the moment what the scale of the problem might have been. But if Uber’s fare estimator tool was buggy heading into the biggest surge night of the year, there are obvious questions about the fairness of its pricing that night.
It’s also clear that the estimator was working for many users. But some weren’t happy with it. There are scattered complaints that users received estimates that were dramatically lower than the fares they were ultimately charged.
“@Uber next time you want to ‘ensure your customers always find a ride,’ don’t. I got an estimate of $59-$72 and my ride was $343,” wrote Rachel Harper. There is no way to independently verify her claim.
Let’s hope Uber answers questions soon about its fare estimate tool. I’ve always thought it was the best part of the service…and makes Uber more transparent than a typical taxi ride. But if the estimate is wrong, or invisible, Uber rides are far less transparent. There is no running meter in an Uber, and riders don’t know what they are paying until after they arrive at their destination.
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