Uber to give upfront pricing in biggest app redesign since 2010 launch

SAN FRANCISCO — Uber has radically revamped its ride-hailing app, putting a premium on interface simplicity and rider entertainment.

But perhaps the biggest change is the addition of upfront pricing and arrival time predictions pegged to each level of Uber service. More than just eliminating the price-shock factor, the feature could begin steering more consumers toward Uber's carpool option, UberPool.

"Around 40% of rides (in San Francisco) are with UberPool, and we think that if you see that you might arrive at the same time with it but be paying far less, more people might start using it," CEO Travis Kalanick told a small group of reporters at a demo the day before Wednesday’s global rollout.

From its ability to suggest the most efficient street corner pickup spots to pinpointing the location of friends — a feature Kalanick dubbed "people as a destination" — the new app targets the leap in smartphone features made since Uber's debut six years ago.

For example, opting into a calendar integration feature creates a shortcut button to your next appointment. Tap it and a ride order is generated to that destination.

Similarly, leveraging a contacts list allows you to send a push notification to a friend you're trying to meet. When they accept the message, their location is inputted directly into your Uber app and avoids copying-and-pasting emailed addresses into the app.

“Facebook, Snapchat, and Google have a business model that’s about taking time away from you, ours is to give it back,” said Kalanick. “We’re looking to give you time, calm, joy and money.”

The new app will also, over the coming weeks, add features aimed at making the trip itself more productive and entertaining.

Dubbed the Uber Feed, the app’s scrolling litany of offerings will include UberEats dining suggestions based on eateries that would be able to deliver a meal close to your arrival time; the ability to use Snapchat filters to alert friends of your arrival time; and get details about the music playing in the car if the driver is streaming from Pandora.

Kalanick brushed off a suggestion that much like General Motors’ new partnership with IBM Watson to turn the car via OnStar into a rolling marketplace, Uber could eventually sell to its users via the app.

“If you look at our business model, we’re not in the advertising game,” said Kalanick, whose company has been valued at $68 billion based on taking a percentage of each fare generated by its independent contractor drivers.

“It doesn’t rule out an advertising model in the future, where maybe we tell you about a sale going on at the store you’re heading to,” he says. “But it’s not our number one thing. We would only earn pennies on that.”

The retooled app, which involved rewriting its code, has been in the works since early this year and takes its inspiration from the one-touch starkness of the original UberCab app that launched in 2010.

But over the year, the Uber home screen had become stuffed with new features that had the potential to confuse users. Up to a half-dozen car options lined the bottom of the screen, while a blocky “Schedule a Ride” feature appeared dropped in the middle.

“We had some people tell us they thought UberPool was a summertime feature that took you to the nearest swimming pool,” Kalanick said of the carpool feature. “There was just too much going on.”

Riders using the new app are now presented with a cleaner interface that asks one question — Where to? — while also offering three shortcut buttons that use machine learning to predict possible destinations such as home, office or relative’s house.

Providing both price and arrival time before a ride could result in an uptick UberPool numbers when users see that a group ride is within minutes of a solo trip, often at a fraction of the cost.

The app redesign does not affect the interface used by drivers, who continue to get a simple ride request notification. Once that’s accepted, a rider’s rating, name, and photo, if volunteered as part of a profile, are provided.

During a ride, the app provides a new Uber Feed scroll-down option that includes information about Pandora music that the driver could be playing, or UberEats restaurant delivery recommends.

A recent study by the University of Washington, Stanford and MIT researchers found that riders with African-American sounding names had a much higher cancellation rate than other riders. Uber head of North American operations Rachel Holt said the company does not tolerate discrimination, "but studies like this one are helpful in thinking about how we can do even more."

The new Uber app also includes changes designed to benefit drivers, some of whom have contested Uber's stance that they should be considered independent contractors.

"We wanted to help them with the most stressful part of the ride, the pickup," said Kalanick. "Half the time, people don’t move the pin to their exact location, which can prove frustrating for everyone.”

That problem led to one of the app’s new features: offering one or more suggested pickup spots based on everything from traffic patterns to the most common collection zones. The feature will come into play largely when riders summon an Uber from inside a building.

On the more minor side, the new app loads faster and now turns the vehicle on the map the same color as the actual automobile heading your way.

Uber has been aggressively testing a small fleet of self-driving cars in Pittsburgh, which includes picking up customers. The new app does not have any features that correspond to that technological effort, which instead hinges on data from lasers and cameras and not smartphones.

Kalanick says that any new in-app partnerships along the lines of the Pandora and Snapchat examples will be determined based on user adoption of the new app’s features.

“We’re excited to see what Uber Feed means to the ride, before, during and after,” he said. “But we need to see how it’s used first before moving forward. We’re still in learning mode.”

USA Today


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