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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.

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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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