Uber wants to patent a system that knows when you’re drunk

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Anybody who’s ever shared an Uber with a drunken stranger knows that it can be a loud, tiresome, and downright gross experience. Right now, there isn’t much that drivers (and carpoolers) can do to steer clear of these sorts of people, but artificial intelligence could be a solution.

According to a patent application spotted by CNN, Uber has drawn up a plan for AI that detects a user’s drunken behavior to accommodate them before they get into the backseat. The system, described by members of Uber’s Trust & Safety team in 2016 and published yesterday, tracks how someone typically uses Uber’s app: how quickly they type (and with how many typos), how precisely they click on buttons, their walking speed, and the way their phone is typically held or dropped on any given day.

Someone who hails a car to get home after hitting the bars probably won’t be the best at typing out their home address or walking too quickly (if at all). Factors like these are plugged into Uber’s planned algorithm, along with details about when and where the ride was requested. A late-night Uber call or one that’s from an area loaded with bars, would tip the system off about a rider’s sobriety differently than a daytime call from the suburbs.

How drunken or disorderly the AI assumes a rider to be is ultimately what shapes what their ride looks like, according to the patent application. A driver set to pick up a particularly tipsy passenger might get a notification on their phone beforehand, or they could be told to meet the rider at the designated location a bit later to give the person more time to get to the car before driving off. Depending on their sobriety levels (or lack thereof), a passenger may only match with drivers who are trained or experienced with handling people in this state, or the rider might be prevented from joining a carpool.

Uber’s idea, as it’s written out, manages to make some late-night rides a bit less awkward without barring drunken passengers from the service entirely. Still, it’s not hard to imagine that a driver with a new, shiny, upholstered car might think twice about picking up a passenger they know to be sloshed. If these people can’t get themselves into the back of an Uber, then they might resort to driving or other forms of transportation that can be dangerous under alcohol’s influence.

Another disturbing possibility comes from the drivers who wouldn’t use this indicator as a deterrent but as a draw. There have been more than 100 cases of assault and abuse at the hands of Uber drivers over the past four years. A common thread through many cases, according to court documents obtained by CNN, was that the victims were either heavily inebriated — if not fully passed out — while the assault took place. Uber’s planned AI feature could, in theory, let drivers easily scout neighborhoods to find drunken passengers for this purpose.

Uber declined to comment on these issues, but it’s important to note that this product nascent; it’s just a patent application right now. The issues described here could be dealt with in a more considered way before this project pops into everyone’s phones, if it ever does. Until then, the countless carpoolers who take Uber might have to tolerate drunken, impromptu karaoke in the back seat of their car — and maybe even getting puked on.

Comments

Oh great, should definitely make sexual assault a lot more targeted. Thanks, Uber /s

Nothing would stop a taxi driver to do the same. Or literally any bypassing stranger to drag you into an backalley.

Lesson to be learned: Drinking is fine, as long as you are still somewhat sober. Passing out is definitely a no-go.

Riding drunk already lowers your score. This would mean a lower score and being much less likely to get a ride when you actually need it.

It really all depends upon Uber’s implementation. Yes, it could be used for the very negative reasons you stated here. Or Uber could see use this tool for public relations purposes by training specific, vetted individuals as specialists in dealing with very drunk people so that they—and not the unpredictable and even potentially dangerous contractors—engage with these riders. The point would be to help ensure that the most dangerous drunks NEVER get into an automobile instead of a cab or a rideshare vehicle.

If I were Uber, I’d move forward with this as well as a special training and background check program for drivers. Those drivers would, in turn, receive a greater compensation share than other drivers, especially since these incredibly drunk people probably wouldn’t have the wherewithal to tip. Less inebriated people can probably be served by the rest of the Uber fleet.

Uber’s track record isn’t great these days, but this could be a good tool if they think about it before just throwing it out there.

Hope they’ll allow users to disable such analysis. Seems like a lot of data collection. Or maybe they’re already doing that collection and now are just thinking of what to make of it. Anyway, privacy sucks nowadays. Time to re-read terms and conditions.

PS Having someone else be able to track location, know whether you’re drunk or not is too personal for some people.

The only uses I have for Uber is when I go out drinking, I don’t get plastered but I can’t imagine how many accidents or DWI this service has saved. Now they want to make it harder to get a ride for being responsible?

Uber driver here. My primary working hours are Friday and Saturday nights, so I deal with a loooot of drunk people.

I’ve been at it for 8 months now, and I have to say that dealing with drunk people in and of itself isn’t bad. It frankly comes with the territory, and it is realistically my job to get these people to where they’re going safely. I’d much rather be giving them a ride (and get paid for it), than have them try to drive themselves.

There are certain levels of drunk that get difficult to deal with – people who are incoherent, don’t know where they are, and are too out of it to even get out of the car when they arrive. This is annoying, but it’s only come up twice.

Drunk people throwing up is obviously gross, but I just keep some quality plastic grocery bags in the seatback pockets and advise anyone who asks or looks like they might be feeling sick that the bags are there. They get used, the passenger appreciates not having to pull over or risk making a mess, and I don’t have to clean anything up. Everyone wins.

The only time drunk people are an actual issue is when they’re also aggressive. 99% of people I’ve dealt with are happy drunks. They may be loud, rowdy, or a bit dense, but that’s to be expected. It really comes down to having to deal with shitty people. Drunk or not, some people are just assholes. Alcohol lowers your inhibitions, and, well, that’s when shitty people who are generally holding it in let it all out. If you’re looking for a random anecdotal stat to help you feel better about people – in about 800 rides, 90% of which are late night, I’ve only dealt with two angry drunks.

While I have to admit I’d appreciate a feature like this, I fear that it would do more harm than good. It would be nice to at least be mentally prepared for someone so drunk their phone has flagged them as such. But, it’s pretty obvious and understandable that drivers might just not want to deal with them if presented with that information. And that doesn’t even touch on the potential for asshole drivers to take advantage of passengers that are literally being flagged as vulnerable…

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