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Competition drives Uber to improve its ride

As Uber’s competitors ramp up, the ride-hailing app pioneer builds out its safety features, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.



When the up-and-coming ride-hailing app Taxify announced a US$175-million fund-raising round in May, it send shock waves through the world of on-demand transport apps. Not because the amount was so large – after all, Uber’s value if it lists on the stock market was  put at $120-billion last month.

The surprise was the lead investor: Daimler AG, parent company of Mercedes-Benz. It suggested a determination by vehicle manufacturers to be an integral part of the ride-sharing future.

Almost as surprising was the purpose of the investment: expansion in Europe and Africa. The former was predictable. The latter was startling. Taxify, founded in Estonia in 2013, was launched in South Africa in 2016, three years after Uber chose Johannesburg for its first service in Africa.

Taxify still struggles to gain traction, while Uber has become a household name in South Africa. That doesn’t give the pioneer room for complacency, though. With Taxify building a war chest to invest in new markets and new capabilities, Uber has to keep upping its act.

The good news and the bad news for Uber is that there is plenty that needs improving or fixing.

The default Uber map that guides drivers to their passengers’ destination is decidedly inferior to Waze, and many drivers in fact prefer to use the Google-owned traffic app. Pick-up locations are often presented differently to drivers and the passengers. Safety features are not obvious.

These and other issues were clearly on Uber’s collective mind when it recently sent out its global product head, Sachin Kansal, from San Francisco, to unveil new safety features for the South African market. The most significant of these, an emergency button in the app, is tailor-made for South Africa. To some extent, so is a new Safety Centre, designed to provide users with more information on both their rides and the local environment.

Sachin Kansal, global product head at Uber

“Think of it as an education hub,” said Kansal, who is responsible for building safety into the app. “It educates users on what we do for their safety and what they can do for their own safety, such as what they should do before they get in a car.

“It includes simple suggestions that are very relevant to the location. South Africa has suggestions that are different to the United States. South Africa emphasises the need to check the license plate of the vehicle you’re getting in, and check the driver’s name.”

Kansal said Uber realised that users were sharing their trip destinations or estimated time of arrival to the same contacts over and over again. As a result, it brought to the fore a near-hidden feature allowing users to create a trusted contacts list of people with whom location can be shared.

“We also noticed that users are a little bit more concerned about night trips, so night trips can be automatically shared with a trusted contact.”

The emergency assistance button is available to both riders and the drivers. For now, it calls private security companies with whom Uber works. The automated emergency call shows the vehicle’s make and model, license plate and current location to neighborhood security providers appointed in each area.

The ideal, obviously, is to avoid emergencies as far as humanly possible. One potential source of danger that female riders in particular brought to the attention of Uber was being dropped off right in front of their home or place of work. The fact that this made women feel more vulnerable was enough to justify another new feature: the app can suggest to riders that they be dropped off at points where a short walk would take them to their destinations.

“Part of it is based on artificial intelligence and part of it is manual,” said Kansal. “For example, we see that there’s a concert or a train station. We see that users get picked up in popular places. For the manual part, we ask our riders to report back on their ride, before the ride, during the ride and after drop-off.”

Kansal was surprisingly open to criticisms and complaints. No doubt, he is faced with much of the same wherever he goes.

“We do see on our side issues ranging from the driver to the trip itself where Uber can do more in the product. We do make that difference very clear in the back end of the system. Now we have to bring it to the fore.”

These improvements won’t be the last. They are an indication both of the extent to which Uber listens to its customers, and to which competition is the most powerful driver of improved customer service.

Click here to see Uber’s new safety features

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Cape Town not so calm – if you’re a driver

Cape Town drivers lose on average 162 hours a year to traffic jams, so will need some tech and a few tips to stay calm



Cape Town drivers lose, on average, 162 hours a year stuck in traffic jams, and the city is ranked 95th out of around 200 cities, across 38 countries surveyed globally, in terms of congestion issues.

That’s according to the latest INRIX 2018 Global Traffic Scorecard, which is an annual analysis of mobility and congestion trends. The study provides a data-rich evaluation of information collected during peak (slowest) travel times, and inter peak (fastest point between morning and afternoon commutes) travel times. Together they provide a holistic account of congestion throughout the day, delivering in-depth insights for vehicle drivers and policy-makers to make better decisions regarding urban travel and traffic health.

Of the further five South African cities surveyed:

  • Pretoria drivers lose, on average, 143 hours a year stuck in traffic jams, ranking as the 64thmost congested city
  • Johannesburg drivers lose an average of 119 hours annually, ranking 61st
  • Durban drivers lose 72 hours, ranking 141st
  • Port Elizabeth drivers lose 71 hours, ranking 75th
  • And Bloemfontein drivers lose 62 hours, ranking 165th

If these hours sound horrific, spare a thought for the poor drivers in Colombia’s capital city of Bogotá who lose, on average, a whopping 272 hours a year stuck in traffic jams!

On average, drivers’ commutes increase by roughly 30% during peak versus inter-peak hours. And the reality is that congestion issues aren’t going away anytime soon. Not here in SA, or anywhere else in the world. So what can we, as drivers, do to make the situation easier to cope with on our daily commute?

Change of mindset

Stressing about the unavoidable, the inevitable, and all the things that are out of our control – like congestion caused by accidents, faulty street lights, or bad weather – is a waste of energy. We should try finding ways of using that time in our cars more productively, to create a less tense, more positive experience. Learning to change our perspective about this challenging time, and associating it with something enjoyable, can drastically alter our reaction to and engagement with it. Rather than expending all our energy on futile anger and frustration, we can channel our focus on things that relax or energise us instead.

Just one more chapter

Being stuck in traffic usually aggravates us because it feels like a huge waste of valuable time. But like a wise man once said, time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time. Listening to a podcast or audiobook can not only be entertaining, but also educational, which is a brilliant use of your time. Ifyou think of your car as a ‘learning lab’, a mobile university of sorts, and your time spent inside as away to exercise your brain and grow intellectually, you may even find yourself wishing for bad traffic so you have an excuse to carry on listening to your podcast or audiobook.

Tame your inner Hulk

Pulling up a playlist of your favourite, feel-good songs can do wonders to combat stress levels. Downbeat music has been proven to have a mellowing effect on drivers. Making a quick switch to downbeat music shows measurable physiological improvements, with drivers calming down much sooner, and making fewer driving mistakes. So the next time you feel your inner Hulk emerging, crank up the volume on your favourite tunes.

The power of ‘caromatherapy’

There are numerous studies on aromas and their impact on human emotion, behaviour, and performance. Researchers have found that peppermint can enhance mental and athletic performance and cognitive functioning, while cinnamon may improve tasks related to attentional processes and visual-motor response speed. A study from Kyoto University in Japan revealed that participants reported significantly lower hostility and depression scores, and felt more relaxed after awalk through a pine forest. It makes sense then, to incorporate some ‘caromatherapy’ into our lives. There are plenty of off-the-shelf car diffusers available, or you could add a few drops of essential oil to DIY felt air fresheners. Citrus scents like orange or lemon can provide a boost of energy, while rosemary can relieve stress and anxiety. Take care not to hang anything that might obstruct your field of vision though, and always make sure to test out essential oils at home first, in case a scent makes you dizzy or overly relaxed, which could affect driving focus.

Contemplate your navel

The mind is a powerful thing, and simply willing yourself to relax might be the most effective method of all. While we don’t recommend meditating while driving due to safety reasons, breathing exercises can help you stay focused and feeling calm. One useful practice is the one-to-one technique – breathing in and out for the same count with the same intensity. Deep, measured breaths facilitate full oxygen exchange, helping to slow down the rate of your heartbeat and stabilise blood pressure, as opposed to shallow breathing, which doesn’t send enough air to the lowest part of your lungs, causing you to feel anxious and short of breath. Just always keep your eyes on the road, and take care to ensure you’re not so busy counting breaths that your concentration is compromised.

Not all those who wander are lost

Some of our best ideas come in those moments where we’re alone with our own thoughts, able to really reflect on the ideas we have without having something immediate that needs our attention. Allow your mind to wander, and do a little brainstorming. Alternatively, use the time to simply day dream. Remember, downtime is not dead time. It is both necessary, and important for your mental health. Use this time as an opportunity to take care of yourself.

In-built vehicle tech

“As we spend more and more time commuting, cars are being designed to accommodate longer periods behind the wheel,” says Kuda Takura, smart mobility specialist at Ford Motor Company of Southern Africa. “Ford uses human-centric design to deliver vehicles that are inviting, accommodating, and intuitive. For example, our SYNCT infotainment system offers nifty, hands-free functions, like allowing drivers to listen to their texts, change music or climate settings, and make phone calls easily with voice control. Our range of driver-assist technologies, like Adaptive Cruise Control, Pre-Collision Assist with Pedestrian Detection and Semi-Auto Active Park Assist, are also designed to take some of the stress off city driving. If our lifestyle means that we might be spending more time in our cars than we do on holiday, then we should make sure we make the most of that time.”

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Vodacom exits Africa biz services



Vodacom Group has sold Vodacom Business Africa’s operations in Nigeria, Zambia and Cote d’Ivoire to Andile Ngcaba’s Synergy Communications. The two entities are in the process of concluding the acquisitions, which are subject to the approval of the regulatory authorities within these markets.

Vodacom says the transaction supports the Group’s enterprise strategy in Africa, which has been refocused to grow and strengthen its core business. It will no longer directly service global enterprise customers in these three markets but will rather continue to operate as a pan African telecommunications networks provider through local relationships, like the one with Synergy Communications. 

This acquisition represents a significant milestone in Synergy Communication’s quest to be a leading provider of cloud and digitally based services in key markets across sub-Saharan Africa and provides key additional assets in its build out of a regional footprint. Synergy Communications currently has operations in Botswana, Malawi and Mozambique.

Andile Ngcaba, Chairman of Synergy Communications said: “This is an exciting landmark transaction for Synergy Communications, providing us with additional momentum in the delivery of our strategy as a pan-African enterprise digital Services Provider. Synergy Communications will partner with major global cloud providers and deliver platform-based services to both multi-nationals and local enterprises.”

Shameel Joosub, CEO of Vodacom Group, said: “Vodacom has a clear vision for strengthening our position as a leading pan-African business and will work with local service providers like Synergy Communications to grow in these markets. Crucially, Vodacom is not exiting any of the territories related to this transaction and remains focused on continuing to deliver exceptional service to our global and multinational clients in these markets through long-term commercial agreements. 

“To support the sustainable growth of pan African digital economies and building connected societies, Vodacom will, via local service providers, continue to service clients in each market. We seek to leverage the collective strengths of Vodacom and Synergy Communications to meet the changing requirements of clients across each of these markets.”

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