Soon Uber Will Know When Passengers are Drunk… But is That a Good Thing?

Soon Uber Will Know When Passengers are Drunk… But is That a Good Thing?


We’ve all dealt with one, or two, or 40 drunk passengers as rideshare drivers. My personal experiences with drunk passengers has ranged from funny and entertaining to loud and obnoxious to passed out and puking.

Vomit. The last thing any Uber Driver wants to see

Would I rather avoid drunk passengers? Absolutely, but if you’re working nights on the weekends, it’s almost impossible to avoid intoxicated passengers. But… Uber might have a solution in the works.

According to a new patent application, Uber is working on artificial intelligence that will be able to identify if passengers are drunk or displaying uncharacteristic behaviors.

As a driver, my first thought is great! Uber will ban all drunk passengers so I never have to drive one again. That may seem fine for drivers but how does this technology work? What privacy concerns does it raise? Would they really not allow a drunk passenger to get a ride?

We decided to take a deeper dive into Uber’s latest patent application to better understand this technology, its use cases, and figure if this is something that we really want. We started out by understanding how Uber hopes the technology will actually work.

How would Uber’s “Drunk Detector” work?

Uber’s drunk detection technology operates off the (probably true) assumption that when you are drunk, you are very bad at using your phone. The drunk detector’s artificial intelligence system would first learn how you interact with the Uber app normally, and then raises a red flag when you start to do things “abnormally”.

But, what is abnormal you say? Doing things like misspelling words, not precisely clicking buttons, being slow to request a ride, and even walking near a known bar area during certain times could all be flagged as abnormal by Uber’s algorithms and you could be deemed drunk.

How could drunk detection benefit drivers?

There are some real benefits here for drivers if this technology does come to fruition. For instance, simply being able to opt-out of accepting drunk passengers would help many drivers avoid situations where they feel uncomfortable or unsafe and put more power in the hands of drivers.

Uber could also decide to weight these drunk passengers’ ratings lower than sober passengers, as they may be more irritable and willing to stretch the truth to get out of paying for a ride.

Even more importantly, Uber can use this technology to accelerate claims of damages against passengers when they puke in a driver’s car when they are intoxicated if Uber can know without a shadow of a doubt that these passengers were drunk.

Sounds Great… But will it work?

This technology sounds promising, but how well will it actually work in practice?

I can imagine scenarios where passengers are not intoxicated, but having a bad day, nervous, or simply having a hard time using their phone and get flagged as being drunk. Does that mean they have to wait longer? Do they have to pay more? Will drivers lose out on fares because of these false positives?

The system is said to use a mix of GPS technology and the accelerometer and gyroscope’s on your phone as part of their algorithm, and according to the patent these systems will be used to understand when you’re near a bar if you did something like fall or drop your phone. So if I fall at 1:00 am near a bar does Uber automatically think I’m drunk?

These technologies are not yet flawless and they won’t be anytime soon. So what would the consequences be for riders who are falsely reported to be drunk?

And what privacy issues does this technology raise?

Even if this technology works flawlessly, there are major privacy concerns here. As passengers will start to ask themselves if they really want Uber to have such personal information on them, and if they do have this information, what will they do with it? Right now it seems that the information will be used exclusively for trying to improve the driver and rider experience, but will this data be sold in the future?

Could advertisers one day soon be able to target heavy drinkers more precisely because of this data that Uber is pulling?

What should drivers do? Wait and see.

There are a lot of questions about Uber’s latest patent and not a lot of answers.

Drivers that want to stay safe while driving drunk passengers should follow do what they have likely always done. Buy and use a dashcam at all times, avoid heavy interaction with anyone that is making you uncomfortable, and avoid driving late at night on the weekends if you absolutely do not want to have any intoxicated passengers.

It’s great that Transportation Network Company’s (TNCs) like Uber are constantly looking to improve on the app. That’s why Uber is known as one of the top rideshare services that drivers are using. Many patents such as this one will never be anything but a number on a patent sheet. However, as drivers, we should stay vigilant and aware of new features and capabilities that TNCs are adding to applications and make sure that we know both the positives and the negatives of these feature rollouts.


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