Uber enables audio recording safety feature to ride along in Chicago and resolve disputes

09 Aug 2023

An Uber sign is displayed inside a car in Palatine on May 22, 2023. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)

By Robert Channick

Chicago Tribune • Published: Aug 09, 2023 at 2:13 pm

The next time you hail an Uber in Chicago, make room for Big Brother.

Uber is rolling out a new safety feature Wednesday in Chicago and other markets that will allow drivers and riders to record audio during the trip to deter and resolve conflicts.

Once enabled, the safety feature will pop up on the app, giving both the driver and rider an option to hit the record button for all or part of the journey. The completed audio file is encrypted and stored on the user’s smartphone for seven days in the event that either party wants to submit an incident report to Uber.

“We want to just make sure on the trip, there are safe, comfortable interactions. That’s No. 1,” said Sachin Kansal, vice president of product management at Uber. “No. 2 is we want a source of truth … to determine if one or the other party had any wrongdoing.”

Launched in Latin America in 2019, the audio recording feature was introduced in three U.S. cities — Kansas City, Missouri; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Louisville, Kentucky — beginning in December 2021. It has since expanded to more than a dozen countries and 150 U.S. cities, including New York in April.

The rollout was slated to go live in Chicago and remaining U.S. markets in phases beginning Wednesday. Uber users will get an email over the coming days to let them know the recording feature is available. Enabled through the app, riders and drivers will be able to activate the audio recording feature at any time during the trip. The recording will end automatically after the drive is completed.

Kansal declined to share usage figures, but said the feature has been well-received in other markets.

“The response from riders and drivers equally has been very, very strong,” Kansal said. “Riders may not find the need to record on every trip. You may expect more nighttime use than daytime use.”

There were 75,000 ride-share drivers registered to work in Chicago as of May, with 50,000 taking at least one trip during the month, according to Elisa Sledzinska, spokesperson for the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, which regulates the industry.

This year, the city received 98 consumer complaints against ride-share drivers and companies from January through July, Sledzinska said. Ride-share complaints can encompass driver conduct, payment issues, unsafe driving and vehicle condition.

Lenny Sanchez, director of the Illinois chapter of the Independent Drivers Guild, which has about 10,000 members in the Chicago area, is skeptical the audio recording feature will do much to deter bad behavior, especially by passengers.

“It’s just more or less fluff,” Sanchez said. “So it sounds good to the drivers and sounds good to the users just to create a sense of security to build up their brand.”

Uber was forced to navigate state-by-state privacy laws to add the recording feature to its app. Illinois is a two-party-consent state, which means it is illegal in most circumstances to record a private conversation unless all parties agree to it.

Uber is rolling out a new safety feature Wednesday in Chicago that will allow drivers and passengers to record audio during the ride to deter conflicts. A notification in the app indicates when either party has enabled the feature.
Uber is rolling out a new safety feature Wednesday in Chicago that will allow drivers and passengers to record audio during the ride to deter conflicts. A notification in the app indicates when either party has enabled the feature. (Uber)

When hailing a ride, drivers and passengers will be notified if either party has enabled the audio recording feature. Accepting the ride provides tacit consent to be recorded, Kansal said.

“Effectively when you’re on a trip, both parties can record, neither party record or either party record,” he said. “So all combinations are possible.”

Kansal said they have not seen riders or drivers cancel in other markets when notified that the other party may record the trip.

To assuage privacy concerns, the audio files are encrypted, meaning neither the driver nor the rider can listen to them on their devices. The recording can be decrypted if a rider or driver submits the file as part of a safety report to Uber. As in “Mission: Impossible,” the audio file will self-destruct after seven days if no action is taken.

The audio recording feature is the latest effort by Uber to enhance safety in the ride-sharing industry. In 2021, with carjackings on the rise in Chicago and other markets, Uber launched a nationwide verification program for riders using anonymous payment methods as a safety measure to protect drivers.

“That has actually helped a lot in terms of both stopping certain riders who may have the wrong intent, but also making drivers more comfortable,” Kansal said.

Sanchez said the verification program was a step in the right direction, but didn’t go far enough to protect drivers. Ride-sharing, he said, remains a risky business for drivers in Chicago.

“They may have slightly dropped from what they were at the peak during the pandemic, but carjackings and assaults of drivers are still happening on a daily basis,” he said.

Kansal declined to specify what kinds of incidents have prompted the submission of audio files in markets where the recording feature has been available.

But he did say that the audio files have proved helpful in determining the nature of disputes, resulting in warnings and stronger actions against both riders and drivers.

“In a lot of cases, that may be just a precautionary thing on the side of either the rider or the driver, and they’re sharing with us,” he said. “And in some cases, there may be an actual issue that we have to deal with.”

While Sanchez is skeptical the audio feature will do much to deter ride-sharing conflict, he said there is a solution that has proved effective: video.

Drivers who install dashcams in their cars have seen “an observed difference” in initially rowdy passengers suddenly being on their best behavior when they notice they are under video surveillance during the ride.

“Our recommendation 100% is for every driver to have a dashcam,” Sanchez said. “I don’t care if you drive 10 hours a week or 50 hours a week. You have to have a dashcam.”