What I learnt about Uber, Ola and the app based taxi services after 120 trips

 

I’ve taken more than 120 trips using the Uber app in the last 10 months. Until last month, UberPOOL wasn’t an option and I used to be the only rider in the cab. Curiosity (and also a good way to kill time in Bangalore’s traffic) made me ask a lot of questions on Uber, it’s service model, it’s app and I tried to understand their business model which the Uber Partners (yeah, they’re not called drivers by Uber and this is one of the reasons I like Uber) were happy to discuss.

My first thought was “Why did not someone think of this earlier?” This reminds me of how ice was initially marketed - something that people did not realise they needed! 

But during my discussions, I have learned and understood some things about their service which I’m putting down below:

Why Uber?

Why I love prefer using Uber all the time? The primary reason has to be the entire experience that Uber offers - starting from the look and feel of the app to the ease of payment.

What are the things I like about the service?

a. Ride Experience :

Uber originally started as a non-cash payments service. It is only very recently that they have added Cash as a payment option. I think this would have been a key part of their service design objectives. Traditionally, a cab driver has to go through the hassle of handling cash. In India, there was no provision for using credit/debit cards to pay for your regular taxi rides. The app model has made it easy for the drivers and riders. You take the rider to her destination, she says a ‘Thank You’ and walks off. You get paid for the ride at the end of the week. This offers a more regular employment experience for the driver and a great service experience for the rider.

Also, Uber refers to the people who drive with them as Uber Partners. This terminology is also visible on the billboards they have put up in Bangalore.

This is from one of their campaigns I found online. Notice how they do not mention ‘driver.’

b. Focus on User Interface (UI) and User Experience (UX) of Uber app: Also, they seem to have put a lot of thought into the development of the user as well as driver’s app (UI and UX perspective)

Like, the ‘Start Trip’ or ‘Complete Trip’ buttons need to be slid for activation and not simply tapped. This prevents situations where the button is activated by accident.

But of course, there is a lot more that can be done in this area. Check out the last section of the post for details.

c. Ratings - for Drivers as well as Riders: The drivers have a rating, but after every trip, the driver rates the rider too and thus if you have taken a ride using Uber, you have a rating too. If you wish to know how the drivers have rated you, check for your rating on the website. It is also available on the driver’s app against your name. This system is simply fantastic because you get a driver who has a profile similar to your rating. Karma in action!

d. Customer Support: You know how good Uber’s customer support is if you have ever had to use it, but I was surprised to find they offer great customer support services to their drivers as well. Once on a trip, the driver could not understand Hindi very well and wanted to talk to customer support. I helped him with the translation while the call was on the loudspeaker. This made me realise Uber really takes care of its drivers. However, they offer very limited support in regional languages. If the Kannada speaking support team is busy, the call is transferred to a team member who speaks Hindi. And given the scale of operations in Bangalore, I’m sure this happens quite often.

What are the challenges the drivers face?

Based on my discussions and experience I found that the most common ones are:

a. Using a new version of the app after update. For instance, the initial version of the Uber app forced the driver to complete the POOL trips in the same order in which they hit the app. Therefore, If I got in second and wanted to get down first, it would not be possible to complete my trip on the driver’s app. He will have to complete the trip of the first rider before completing my trip. Such cases can be  resolved by performing some sort of A/B testing to test the acceptance of the changes by a select group of volunteers who can try out the app real time before final release. (Perhaps, they already have something of this sort in place)

b. Network Issues/ Map Issues: This is one of the major issues (at least in Bangalore) At many places, especially the internal roads, the mobile network being weak, details of a path are not logged on the app. The fare computation is based on distance which is measured by the actual path traversed based on the GPS feed from the Uber device. Thus, if a driver disables the GPS and network on the phone after starting the trip and enables them only just before completing the trip, your receipt will show a straight line between your origin and destination locations and the fare thus calculated will be far less than actual (This had happened with a friend, my understanding on this matter is limited)

Another challenge is concerning the accuracy of Google maps. Many times, the routes suggested by Google Maps are not the best routes considering the local conditions. However, these are issues that can be resolved only on a long term basis. Uber had tried to acquire Here Maps though to sort out the mapping issues and reduce dependency on Google Maps, but it did not quite work out.

Also, I understand that the Google Maps in use is a part of the Uber Partner app itself. So there is no question of the app not being updated as Uber forces drivers to update to latest versions of their app.

 

This is a screenshot from my app for a recent trip. The driver’s app froze but the next rider’s pick up on the UberPOOL trip was visible on my app. The route suggested was not the best one as a building blocked that road (see the portion circled in red) 

Read More:

  1. Quora - What features and functions do Uber and Lyft drivers’ apps have?
  2. 10 Features That I’d Like To See Uber Add To Help Its Drivers
  3. The Pros and Cons of Uber’s New Driver App

Uber organises meetings with drivers once a month to discuss the problems they face. Many drivers have told me they put up these issues in these meetings. I think Uber is working on these issues, but maybe these are not a high priority as of now. (Gaining market share, generating revenue and adding more drivers may be the focus at this point)

c. Rider Issues : These seem to be problems that come up when people are really not considerate about the traffic conditions, or maybe are plain rude. Although rare in my experience as a co-rider, the drivers tell me this is not the case and such issues often come up.

Given the traffic conditions and road layout in Bangalore, I feel it is acceptable to walk for some 50 meters from your pick up point to the nearest main road or junction so that the time required to get to your pick up point and then get back to the main road can be avoided, specially when you are on a POOL trip and someone else is already in the cab. This is just one of the many small issues, but I believe all of this is bound to happen as more and more new users try the service. And perhaps, as the user base scales and the growth reduces after a period, the users still using Uber will be mostly the better-rated ones.

Challenges I faced as a customer?

The most common problem I faced is that drivers are not willing to undertake long trips during peak hour traffic (especially to the Kempegowda International Airport which is about 40 km. away from the city)

Perhaps, it is because of the distance combined with the fact that the driver may have to wait for a long time at the airport for the next ride. Also, if he wants to return immediately after his drop at the airport, he may suffer losses coming back to the city without getting a trip.

What can be done better?

- Better mapping and navigation using the already available trip data. This would also include better identification of traffic and internal routes using past data. I believe this is already being done, but perhaps this is a part of their long-term plan.

- Better integration of mapping with the app and solution of network related issues. Why not have maps available offline on the device. The route traversed will be captured and stored and it can be updated on Uber’s system after network reception has improved.

- More training during on-boarding, especially to drill down the idea is Uber values customer service and that the service rating matters. Regular tips (on messages to drivers) on how to offer better service to customers may help, especially in cases where the driver has used some other app-based taxi service previously.

- Provide an incentive to drive to the airport at peak times. Or even better, assign drivers for airport trips if they have previously accepted such trips during peak hours.

- A new driver is rated 5.0 by default. I think a Reddit-like approach where the points on a comment are hidden for the first few hours is something that the Uber’s rating system could borrow.

- A dashboard for riders, with stats like the number of trips taken, cumulative distance and duration and something like a national or global leader-board of such stats. This may be a bit like gamifying the system. Perhaps, this could be made available only to riders who have taken 100+ trips.

How does Uber stand against Ola in India?

Again, based on enquiry only, I found that:

- More drivers have signed up for Ola than Uber. My hunch is before Uber started accepting cash for payment, Ola had more transactions per day than Uber.

- The per kilometre fare on Ola is more that that on Uber. Also, Ola accepted cash payments for rides from the start. Most Indians (based on my discussions only) prefer paying by cash. Also, I understand Ola pays drivers on a daily basis whereas it is on a weekly basis on Uber. These could be the reasons for the more drivers to have signed up for Ola

- Ola is not as service oriented as Uber. For instance, take wallet payments. Ola Money is practically useless because I have to add the complete amount for the trip before the trip ends. If I have INR 500 in my wallet and the trip cost me INR 505, I have to pay the driver the INR 5 after the trip ends. I cannot choose to pay later by adding the money to my wallet or paying using my card.

- Uber is service oriented and due to focus on quality, it may lose out on the number of drivers who want to be associated. Like one of the drivers I talked to told me “You need to be smart to make good money and stay profitable using Uber”

- Uber did launch UberAUTO in Delhi, but I think Ola has got it right when it comes to Autos. Moreover, it may be difficult to implement Uber’s service-focused model when it comes to Autos in India.

- Uber recently started accepting cash for payments to capture market share of users who prefer cash options. It creates the hassle of handling change for drivers. In my personal opinion, it does not make it easier to take a trip using Uber, but then since India prefers using cash, they had to change their card/wallet model.

So does Ola win or Uber? I have no way to tell. (I couldn’t find any data available in public domain to compare these services) Also, now that the app-based ride services sector in India is still evolving, it may be a difficult question to answer.

Conclusion

Both Drivers and Riders are apprehensive of the discounted model. They know that the discount and heavy incentives may vanish if the market stabilises. This sector will surely never be a monopoly with the rise of competition in this segment, but will the costs stay so low even if it becomes an oligopoly and a few players control the industry?

There has been widespread criticism about Uber that the drivers actually make far less money than what they are promised since they lose out to vehicle maintenance, depreciation and taxes. (See : Why Uber is a Scam)

Uber has also had a few PR blunders.

(Read more : Pando talks of a lobby that opposes Uber and TechCrunch on Uber’s Worst Screw Ups)

But how Uber, and also the app-based ride industry grows in India, would be a very exciting area to watch out for.

  1. The Rideshare Guy Blog
  2. Uber Driver Diaries Blog
  3. Uber Driver Secrets: 7 Things to Know Before Working for Uber

PS: I have not found any blog similar to The Rideshare Guy Blog specifically in the Indian context. If something of that sort existed, it would have been a great resource to understand the Indian angle of this story.