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Uber Silently Surge prices when your phone battery low

Updated: Nov 30, 2023

A small study by the Belgian newspaper Dernière Heure looked at whether the app changes its pricing for users in Brussels based on their battery.


Derniere Heure investigated by calling a taxi from their office in Brussels to Tour & Taxis in the city center using two iPhones, one with an 84 percent battery and the other with 12 percent. The outcome revealed a notable price discrepancy, with the smartphone with a 12 percent battery being charged 17.56 euros (Rs 1,585) and the phone with an 84 percent battery being charged 16.6 euros (Rs 1498) for the same trip.

However, Uber disputed that the payment is based on how much battery life is left in a phone. It further claimed that the app is unable to measure a user's battery. "Uber does not take into account the phone's battery level to calculate the price of a trip," the company said in a statement to Derniere Heure.

The topic has resurfaced for discussion on Twitter after a self-professed techie tweeted about an extremely expensive ride becoming cheaper after she charged her phone.

Why would Uber and Lyft vary pricing based on battery level?

First off, the possible motivation could be that users would accept whatever price is quoted instead of facing the possibility of a dead phone and no cab options while waiting for the supposedly demand-based pricing to drop.

Secondly, Uber and Lyft's apps have access to your phone's battery level and could use the information if they chose to.

If your phone's battery is below 20%, prices increase.

The suspicion was first raised by Twitter user Sarah (@NerdyAndNatural). She claims that both Uber and Lyft hike cab fares when your phone's battery is low.

She shared an instance where the $25 to $30 ride price jumped a whopping $81 while her phone's battery was at 18%.

Once the phone was charged up to 25%, the price dropped back down.

Sarah's tweet about correlation between battery level and surge pricing!

I wanted to back this up yesterday but I couldn't find the screenshots until this morning. You can see my battery is at 18% and the ride (which is normally $25-$30) is hiked up to $81. I saw it change instantly.

The price dipped once I charged my phone to 25%.

Meanwhile, one could also argue effective surge pricing dropped in the time spent recharging the phone's battery.

Last year, Uber and The University of Chicago professor Chris Nosko published a study about the effects of surge pricing. The study was based on an incident on New Year’s Eve two years ago when Uber was hit with a technical glitch that caused surge pricing in New York City to fail for around 26 minutes.

The study concluded that without surge pricing Uber would not really function properly because you would not be able to push a button and get a ride within a few minutes. Why? When there is surge pricing due to a major event, people are less likely to request a ride and about 100% of ride requests are completed without affecting ETAs much. But when there wasn’t a pricing surge due to the technical glitch on New Year’s Eve, the number of ride requests rapidly increased, only 25% of the requests were completed and there were very long ETAs.

Uber’s internal data also revealed another interesting detail. Uber users react strongly to the surge pricing multiplier when it is a round number.

“The surprising thing is there is a very, very strong round number effect which we detect. So when you go from 1.9 to 2.0, you see six times larger of a drop in demand than you saw from going from 1.8 to 1.9. So the amount more that you're paying for the trip is the same between those two steps, but 2.0 just feels viscerally larger to people,” added Chen.

Uber has denied that payment is determined by how much charge a phone’s battery has left and says that the app is not able to measure a user's battery.

Uber says an algorithm called surge pricing or dynamic pricing that automatically increases the fare when the demand for rides exceeds the supply of available drivers in a specific area. Surge pricing is intended to encourage more drivers to come online and meet the increased demand, resulting in more reliable service for riders.

The surge multiplier is based on a number of factors, such as the time of day, traffic congestion, and the number of available drivers in the area. It is possible that a low phone battery could also be one of the many factors that influence the surge pricing algorithm. However, it is important to note that Uber's surge pricing is transparent and is communicated to users before they confirm the ride request.

In a 2016 interview with NPR, Uber's former Head of Economic Research, Keith Chen, stated that the business had discovered that users with lower battery levels were more open to surge pricing. However, Mr. Chen denied that the firm was explicitly hiking pricing for these customers, although other "commentators voiced skepticism about why the company was monitoring battery life at all".


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