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Uber is going to turn your smartphone into an automatic crash detector

Uber is going to turn your smartphone into an automatic crash detector


‘Ride Check’ will send notifications to riders in the event of an accident or an unusually long stop

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

One year ago, Dara Khosrowshahi took over the reins at Uber amid a series of spiraling, self-inflicted scandals, with the promise to right the ship by rescuing the ride-hail company’s abysmal reputation on safety and privacy.

Today, the company is celebrating Khosrowshahi’s first anniversary by introducing a host of new safety improvements for both riders and drivers, including a feature called “Ride Check” that utilizes the GPS, accelerometer, gyroscope, and other sensors inside a smartphone to detect whether there has been a vehicle crash.

“I want Uber to be the safest transportation platform on the planet.”

“I want Uber to be the safest transportation platform on the planet,” Khosrowshahi said at an event in Manhattan on Wednesday.

In the event of a crash, the Uber app will automatically send a notification to a rider’s phone to answer a series of questions. If they verify that there has been an accident, the rider will be prompted to call 911. Uber’s team of safety operators may also reach out to ensure the rider is safe when the feature is triggered.

The feature doesn’t require any new permissions because it is linked to the driver’s smartphone, rather than the riders. Drivers have the Uber app on more frequently than riders, who typically keep the app on in the background during trips.

“From the accelerometer, we know when certain spikes of force happen,” Sachin Kansal, Uber’s director of product management, told The Verge. “It takes a lot to then take that information and process it accurately to be able to determine what it actually means.”

To do this, Uber’s data scientists combine sensor data from the smartphone with information gathered from hundreds of thousands of past trips to assess whether or not a crash had occurred. This requires the engineers to “remove the noise from the signal as much as possible,” Kansal said, “which is why building this technology takes time.”

Uber engineers need to “remove the noise from the signal as much as possible”

Uber has been working on Ride Check for over a year. To be sure, using smartphones to detect and respond to auto accidents isn’t new technology. Other companies and startups, like Zendrive, have been working on similar crash detection technology for several years now. Other systems, like GM’s OnStar, use sensors embedded in the vehicle itself to detect crashes and automatically alert the authorities.

Ride Check isn’t just for crashes, though. The feature is also triggered if the vehicle stops for a prolonged or unusual period of time. Riders will receive a notification asking them if everything is alright, and based on their response, the app will present a series of options, including a call to 911. Kansal said as the feature is rolled out, it hopefully will respond less and less to minor, non-emergency events.

The ride-hail company also released a number of other features, including voice commands and an insurance hub for Uber drivers, new ways to mask addresses and phone numbers between riders and drivers, and two-factor authentication to protect a rider’s account from malicious hacking.

Getting into a car with a complete stranger is a concern for some people, especially with frequent reports of drivers assaulting riders, or vice versa. In order to reduce that anxiety, Uber is taking extra steps so riders and drivers can hide personal information, like home or work addresses and phone numbers, from each other.

Getting into a car with a complete stranger is a concern for some people

The company also introduced a stronger two-factor authentication (2FA) system. Before Wednesday’s announcements, the only option for 2FA was through SMS messages, which hackers have been able to crack in the past. Uber now allows for third-party authentication apps, like Duo or Google Authenticator.

“Please take care of your account,” Kansal said, “we are giving you the tools to do so.”

The new safety features are part of Khosrowshahi’s efforts to reverse the company’s fairly atrocious safety record. The company was sued last year by a woman who was raped by an Uber driver in India after it was reported that top executives, including former CEO Travis Kalanick, had obtained and mishandled the woman’s medical records in an effort to discredit her. And the city of London said it would not renew Uber’s license, citing the company’s lax approach to safety. Uber made several changes requested by the city, including sharing trip data, to get its license renewed.

Most recently, a pedestrian was killed after being struck by a self-driving Uber vehicle in Tempe, Arizona. The company immediately halted its autonomous vehicle testing nationwide. Federal investigators released a preliminary report revealing the Uber vehicle’s sensors spotted the pedestrian but failed to apply its emergency brakes.

On stage in Manhattan on Wednesday — and in a recent interview with The Verge — Khosrowshahi said the new safety features were “just the beginning.”