Uber has started mapping South Africa’s ‘most congested’ city

Driver-partners mapping vehicle in Cape Town.
Driver-partners mapping vehicle in Cape Town.
Image: Courtesy of Uber
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Cape Town

Global ride-hailing giant Uber has rolled out mapping vehicles in Cape Town—often rated South Africa’s most congested city. In a move somewhat similar to Google Street View vehicles, Uber’s fleet of 21st century cartographers are kitted with rooftop cameras that will record street imagery of their surroundings while they are driven around picking up passengers in the Mother City.

Amsterdam-based GPS and travel service company TomTom—which measures congestion worldwide—this year calculated Cape Town has a 30% increase of overall travel time compared to free flow traffic. Mexico City and Bangkok ranks highest of 174 cities monitored with 59% and 57% respectively in overall traffic time increased compared to free flow.

With the information collected by Uber’s new mapping vehicles, the company plans to improve driver efficiency by calculating more accurate estimated time of arrival (ETAs) and helping drivers navigate the best route from A to B. To date it has relied on Google Maps here like it does in most cities around the world.

Examples of information Uber extracts from imagery include business names along with addresses, locations, street names, and much more, explains Uber spokeswoman Samantha Allenberg.

Since launching in Johannesburg in 2013, the San Francisco-headquartered company has rolled out its operations to fifteen cities across eight African nations, and claimed around one million active users a week across the continent. In total, Uber currently has around 60,000 “driver partners” in Africa—half of those are based in Cairo.

Besides the United States, the ride-hailing service this year started collecting street-view photos in Mexico, Canada and the United Kingdom.

The initiative is part of Uber’s grand plan to map the world’s streets, in order to “augment and improve” its existing mapping technology. Although many assume it’s simply laying the groundwork required for its autonomous vehicle program, which relies on various sensors in order to fully understand their surroundings.

Today, Uber’s mapping technology mainly relies on Google Maps to direct drivers. As the race for autonomous vehicles become more established, efforts to improve data accuracy and further independence from Google shouldn’t be surprising. Uber has invested $500 million in its global mapping project. It’s also hired Brian McClendon, who was behind Google Maps and helped create Google Earth and bought imagery collection team from Microsoft’s Bing along with mapping startup deCarta.

There will be nearly a dozen of these vehicles in Cape Town, followed by other cities where the service is available in the country.

When asked about potential privacy concerns, Allenberg noted that the mapping devices do not retain any imagery at or around the initial pick-up or final drop-off locations of users. Moreover, Uber says that it accepts reasonable requests to delete recorded images. The data collected will not be disclosed to the public.