Last night, news broke of a woman passenger allegedly raped by a Uber driver, in New Delhi. Hearing accounts of rape and violence against women is not new in this country, sadly, but what makes this even more shocking is the association with Uber, a disruptive mobile-first taxi platform that claims to have the “safest rides on the road“. According to the well-funded American startup’s website, safety is the second most important thing you need to know about them, right after the app, one of the most important user-facing features of their platform. For a company that prides itself on safety features, this is terrible news. Why and how did Uber let this happen? There are many answers to this question, but let’s give them a shot of reality first, with a warm message they can resonate with, “Welcome to India.”.
To get a sense of how Uber’s safety mechanisms work, we need to understand the feedback system on the user side and the vetting process on the driver side, both aimed at increasing the safety of a ride. On the user side, we can rate drivers, we get to know their cell phone numbers and the car’s registration details. We even get to point the pin anywhere on the map, in case we feel the current location is not safe enough, or sit inside the home, not having to hail a cab out on the unsafe streets. And then there is the rating system, which is completely anonymous and strict. Drivers are supposed to have, at least, a 4.5 out of 5 rating, which they acquire directly from users. Uber asks drivers to delight the passenger by providing amenities like tissues and water, to increase the chances of a better rating.
Most drivers in India don’t do this and bluntly request the passenger for a 5 star rating. Yes, that has happened to me a lot of times, and in rare cases, drivers do not use the pre-registered mobile number, which gets displayed on the app. This is a main feature that adds trust, but there have been instances where I haven’t been able to contact the driver, which is absolutely unacceptable. The driver had used a different phone for calls and later called me from the OTHER number to inform that he is on his way (of course, I gave him a lower rating). But, is Uber aware of problems like these? We aren’t entirely sure, but there are hints from the company’s methods, that could tell us why they don’t have full control over their own system, at least in India.
Uber, as a company, is very aggressive in its tactics. Getting existing taxi drivers to drive for a completely alien concept (and company) is hard, and Uber clearly knows this. With a single digit employee count in each city they operate in, how did the company, so rapidly, increase its driver base? Through partnerships with taxi rental companies which have an existing database of for-hire drivers.
This is what Uber’s Delhi blog says, after the incident –
“Uber exclusively partners with registered for-hire drivers who have undergone the commercial licensing process, hold government issued IDs, state-issued permits, and carry full commercial insurance.”
Holding on to this statement, let’s see how it is in the US. Surely, there are similar partnerships with various rental companies, but Uber claims to have three levels of background checks at the county, state and federal levels. Here’s what the system is like –
As you can see, the process is highly detailed (they get to know if a person is a sex offender or not) and checks are in place at various levels of the government, ensuring the safety of the passenger. If Uber actually executes the things listed above, it can happily claim to have the “safest rides on the road” but this reality, unfortunately, is restricted to a single country, the United States of America (and may be in other developed countries with stricter laws). So, what about the background vetting process in our country?
“Unlike the taxi industry, our background checking process and standards are consistent across the United States and often more rigorous than what is required to become a taxi driver.”
“what we’re doing in the US is an example of our standards around the world.”
Well, knowing India, we can say that the concept of background vetting in India is synonymous with a comedy laugh track. Sex offender list? Social security trace? Properly registered DUI charges? None of these options either exist, or function the way they are supposed to. A driver can fake his license (through bribes), fake his permits, fake his insurance, bribe the police against a DUI charge and what not, because let’s face it, all of these things are entirely possible in India. Even the proper background checks can get you nowhere, largely thanks to the lack of data or strict policies from the Government, making it worse than it already is.
I’m sure Uber knew about these problems before landing in India. So, my question is, why in the world did Uber think they could get away without background checks, especially in India? If, in fact, they do get background checks done, knowing that it can never be as rigorous as the ones in the U.S, why would they even try? It’s just not going to work, if they think safety can be ensured with a vague layer of governmental checks and the feedback system. Despite everything, the company operates its service in India, providing a false sense of hope to users attracted by its safety features.
“..We will also work with the community, with government and the technology industry to find more ways to promote safety in transportation, particularly for women – both here in Delhi and throughout India.”
And now they realize the need for “more ways to promote safety”, AFTER letting safety get out of hand. This is what aggressive expansionist tactics have cost Uber in India. The brand image, which was catapulted to new heights thanks to the virality of social media, is falling to new lows. What will Uber do, now, to fix its brand and ensure proper safety for Indian passengers? They need to think AND act fast. We really hope they do, because firstly, it’s a great service, and secondly, the majority in this country is not going to change its ways soon. Just a reality Uber has to deal with and focus on the safety of the user, rather than focusing on expanding its business at breakneck speeds.
New updates on the incident –
No verification, no GPS: Police
According to Madhur Verma, DCP (North), the driver and the vehicle involved in the incident were part of Uber’s newly-launched low-cost cab-booking service. Police have listed some norms and guidelines that may have been flouted:
# The driver did not undergo the mandatory police verification, and a background check was not conducted by the company.
# He did not have a driving licence issued by the Delhi Transport Authority, which is recommended for those engaged in driving cabs in the capital.
# Instead of a mandatory GPS system, the only link with the driver was an application that he had downloaded on the phone he was using.