It has been officially against the company’s terms of service for children to ride alone and a driver can report anyone they suspect is under 18. That hasn’t stopped kids from using ride-hailing services for years. They set up their own accounts or siphon off their parents or friends’, getting to school or jobs or home safely after a party.
“There are instances where teens are getting into Ubers. That situation is not great for the driver or the teen or the parent because of the lack of visibility,” said Sachin Kansal, vice president of product management at Uber.
The new program will automatically make a number of existing safety features mandatory for the young riders. Their smartphones will make an encrypted audio recording of the ride, they will have to give their drivers a pin number before the ride can start, the app will show emergency options if it detects something is wrong and parents can monitor the ride live on their own device. One new feature is that parents can call the driver directly during a ride.
Only certain drivers will be allowed to pick up minors, according to Uber. They’ll need to have high ratings and a certain amount of experience driving for the company — at least hundreds of trips, Kansal said, though the company is not sharing the exact thresholds. There will be no additional background checks or training for the drivers picking up teenagers and the company still does not do fingerprinting-based background checks. However it will rerun its checks frequently on selected drivers.
Uber has been quietly testing the program for three months and hopes to expand to the rest of the country, Kansal said.
Some of the initial cities include Tucson, Phoenix, Atlanta, Bloomington, Ind., Minneapolis, Kansas City, Mo., New York and Houston.
Drivers who the company determines are qualified to ferry around teens in test cities are automatically opted into the program, but Uber says they have the option to opt out of all underage rides in their settings.
Uber tried a similar pilot of a program for teens in three cities in early 2017, before Dara Khosrowshahi took over as CEO later that year. The program was criticized at the time for not providing enough transparency for drivers or safety features for riders and was shut down.
Other companies like HopSkipDrive have tried to fill the space, offering rides to younger children and using extensive background checks and training.
Letting kids under 18 get in a car alone with a stranger is a serious issue for parents. Uber has struggled with safety in the past and started releasing reports that break down the numbers of rapes and assaults every two years.
However, the services can be necessary for some families when public transportation isn’t an option, parents are at work or teens don’t have a car.
The percentage of American teens getting a driver’s license has dropped in recent years, according to the Federal Highway Administration. One in 8 parents say their teen has taken a ride-hailing trip, according to a 2019 survey by the University of Michigan’s CS Mott Children’s Hospital. Two-thirds of parents said they were worried about drivers sexually assaulting teens, and three-fourths were concerned about the safety of their driving.
Teen rides was one of a number of new features the company announced Wednesday, in an attempt to add younger and older customers to the ever-growing list of services in its app. Uber is also expanding access to a phone call option that people who still aren’t comfortable using apps can call from a cellphone to book a ride. Teens will be able to order Uber Eats on their family accounts, though medications and alcohol will be blocked. There are also features for splitting grocery orders and rides based on each passenger’s distance.
The company is also testing out an option for reserving a different kind of ride.
“If you find yourself in Greece this summer what you’ll be able to do is order a boat in Mykonos,” Kansal said.