One of the most promising digital breakthroughs in transportation over the past decade — and arguably the biggest financial winner of the space — is facing a potentially uncomfortable winter.
Uber’s digital fingerprinting technology, first introduced in Toronto three years ago, has been the most prominent innovation in Canada’s app-based transportation sector since the Uber driver was the first to register using the new technology.
That, too, comes under threat, following the recent cancellation of 1,400 new licensed taxi licences in the country’s largest city.
However, just as Uber scored a legal victory this summer after winning an appeal of its $10-million fine in a New Jersey driver class-action lawsuit, the ride-hailing company may also have just benefited from something in the briefcoming days: a temporary 10-day ban on licensing and permit applications for the Ontario Provincial Police.
Even without the new licence freeze, Toronto’s 30,000 licensed cab drivers had been cracking down on Uber in recent months, along with government regulators. Uber drivers had been ordered off the road for operating without a licence, and were fighting the city’s efforts to increase the fines for the practice from $250 to $2,000.
Now, Uber’s fingerprint technology is at risk. The company has long billed itself as the legal, technology-agnostic alternative to traditional taxi companies, something some of the company’s more than 2 million drivers in the United States also claim is true.
Now, Uber’s digital fingerprints may no longer be valid.
Uber Canada’s spokesperson Kaori Nakamura said in an email that the company was not affected by the no-license-licenses-for-now ban, as it had already received a cease-and-desist letter from the Ontario Provincial Police.
“The drivers with current permits continue to operate throughout the province,” she wrote.
Still, if the province follows through on its plans to impose stricter restrictions on technology-based transportation methods, Uber is vulnerable.
Uber currently requires its drivers to undergo a digital fingerprinting process, though not every driver uses the system. In both markets where the technology has been in use, driver fingerprinting is employed only after an Uber driver has been waiting longer than seven days for a passenger or has failed to respond to more than two dozen requests from Uber, effectively criminalizing the driver on the spot.
As of yet, Uber has not set out an alternative plan. By law, it has until Dec. 3 to announce one if the province does not change its plans.
In order to collect a driver’s digital fingerprint from a prospective passenger, the company uses a system that will randomly select and dispatch a car within 50 metres of a selected passenger, which is immediately sent to the driver. In New York, Uber has long employed the much more secretive Checkr system to collect personal identification information from its drivers.
In both systems, drivers can provide electronic fingerprints to anyone who requests them, including licensed taxi drivers. This leaves potential users exposed to the possibility of being charged under various rules in both countries, including driver license, id, insurance and criminal records.
Industry insiders told the Toronto Star this week that the system is very reliable and provides the best assurances about a driver’s work history.
Meanwhile, Toronto’s taxi industry responded to the daily requests it has been receiving from Uber drivers, according to Business Insider. They have reportedly been berating the potential passengers, saying they will “spit in your face and out your head.”
When they finally agree to a ride, taxi drivers can ask passengers about the app and its multiple features — and determine whether the ride will be safer or riskier than just waiting at a curb.
“They’re thinking with their mouth and not with their brain,” a taxi driver told the Star.