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Uber Wants to Rule the World. First It Must Conquer India | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A street in Bangalore, India, as seen by an Uber driver. Uber is pouring money, engineers and logistical expertise into what could be the world’s largest market for transportation services. Credit Atul Loke for The New York Times

BANGALORE, India — Nandini Balasubramanya’s office here on the southern edge of India’s technology capital does not look as if it would play a key role in the world’s most valuable start-up’s plans for global conquest.

On many days, the tiny space has no electricity. So Ms. Balasubramanya keeps the door open, the noise and dust of Bangalore’s traffic-choked streets streaming in. On one wall, next to a table where she greets a stream of neighborhood job seekers, is a large menu of the documents she asks of each applicant — driver’s license, proof of insurance, vehicle registration permit, proof of bank account, and a half dozen other chits to pass through India’s bureaucracy.

There is also a framed photograph of a smiling Travis Kalanick, the chief executive of the American ride-hailing company, Uber.

Ms. Balasubramanya, 32, does not work for Uber, though. She is an “UberDost” or “friend of Uber,” an independent recruiter who is paid by the company for each driver she brings on. The work is rewarding but often difficult, she said.

After all, this is India, and some drivers have little actual driving experience. Ms. Balasubramanya has trained people who have never worked before, and those with little experience managing money or interacting with middle-class customers. Many also don’t know how to use a smartphone app — the beating heart of the Uber ecosystem — or they struggle with basic map reading.

“I show them how to use Uber, teach them about how to use navigation, or how to use a phone,” Ms. Balasubramanya said.

She has a team of recruiters constantly out scouting for new drivers. And she recently hired a few more employees to call those drivers, making sure that the ones she has found are sticking with Uber, not quitting the service out of apathy or confusion.

Ms. Balasubramanya’s is just one of hundreds of UberDost offices that Uber has set up across India, where the ride-hailing company now operates like a military division bent on subcontinental conquest. After last year’s bruising retreat from China, where the company was outgunned by local incumbent Didi Chuxing, Uber is diving fully into this nation of 1.3 billion people, pouring money, engineers and logistical expertise into dominating what could one day be the world’s largest market for transportation services.

Uber is famously aggressive, and that trait shines through in its ambitions for India. Relatively few people own cars here, so Uber’s long-term goal is to leapfrog Western-style car-ownership culture and move directly into a society where people don’t buy cars, they hail Ubers.

India is also where Uber’s vision of itself as a lean software company has come crashing into the sobering realities of analog life in a rapidly developing country. Its aim of blanketing the world in hail-able cars remains complex and daunting.

“The way to think about it is that India is a super-important place in the world that has huge cities, with huge transportation needs, that we want to serve,” Mr. Kalanick said in an interview. “We want to be there, and want to be there in a big way.”

That interview, in which Mr. Kalanick was by turns combative and charming, took place in mid-January, just before Uber descended into a sustained series of corporate crises. The company is now dealing with a sexual-harassment scandal and greater scrutiny of its freewheeling culture. Mr. Kalanick has since pledged to “fundamentally change as a leader and grow up.”

The troubles have cast a shadow over any plans the privately held company, which is valued at nearly $70 billion, might have had to launch a public stock offering. The particulars of its operation in India also highlight the fact that, for a business dependent on global domination, Uber still has a long way to go.

Uber, which hung up a sign in India in 2013, now operates in 29 cities, including some of the most congested on the globe. Throughout the country, the roads tend to be terrible; clogged with traffic, potholes and pedestrians, marked by ever-shifting routes and a freewheeling interpretation of automotive rules that is almost balletic in its lawlessness.

It’s not just the roads. India’s cellular networks can be spotty and slow, and banking, credit cards and other financial mainstays cannot be taken for granted. More than that, vast differences in education and wealth create a social dynamic between riders and drivers that cannot be smoothed over by improving an app interface.

Not only are many of Uber’s drivers here unfamiliar with smartphones, some are illiterate. Often, drivers and riders don’t speak the same language. Many drivers need financial help to purchase or lease cars, and then require continuing help to manage their finances and other details of their small businesses.

On top of all this is competition. Uber faces an aggressive and well-funded Indian rival, Ola Cabs, which operates in 100 cities and offers a wider range of services than Uber does.

Both Uber and Ola argue that the long-term payoff for their efforts in India could be transformative. Ride sharing is already changing Indian urban life; getting around cities has become cheaper and safer, especially for women. It is also altering life for hundreds of thousands of drivers, many of whom are drawn from India’s poorest ranks.

Yet Uber’s quest toward remaking transportation in India, which the company sees as a template for other developing nations, is bound to be long, expensive and complicated. Uber said on Friday that it lost $2.8 billion in 2016. The company did not break out losses in India, but Mr. Kalanick said the company’s investment here is “an order of magnitude lower” than the spending on its misadventure in China.

“We are not profitable in any of the cities we’re in now,” Amit Jain, the president of Uber India, said in a phone interview. “We have a path to get there, and we are confident we will.”

The India Opportunity

In San Francisco, where Uber has its headquarters, hailing a car is simple: You open the app and press a button. A Prius, or something like it, pulls up in less than two minutes, with the payment and mapping handled by the app.

Such supreme ease of use was Uber’s founding stroke of genius. Everything unpleasant about using a cab — finding one, getting one to stop for you, figuring out a way to pay if you didn’t have cash, and fretting about whether you were being ripped off — had been improved by software.

In India, too, Uber saw a transportation sector ripe for remaking. As India’s economy grew over the last 40 years, hundreds of millions of people have moved to urban areas from villages. India now has three cities — Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata — with more than 15 million residents, and it has dozens more with more than a million.

Yet India’s urban infrastructure has not kept up. By the turn of the last century, transportation scholars began warning of an urban transportation crisis that had driven air and noise pollution, traffic, and road fatalities to some of the highest levels in the world.

It is especially difficult for India’s poor to get around. A tiny slice of the wealthiest Indians can afford private cars and drivers to ferry them. Others make do with an array of lesser choices: bicycles, scooters, bicycle rickshaws, motorized rickshaws, buses so crowded that passengers hang out the door. Most Indian cities lack adequate public transportation, and because of the foul air and the dearth of sidewalks, walking itself can be perilous. In Bangalore, three pedestrians are killed on the roads every two days.

For both Uber and Ola, this presented an opportunity. Both thought technology would enable them to provide rides that were cheaper than other forms of transportation and more accessible to a wider swath of Indians.

“Before we existed, getting a cab in most Indian cities was expensive and difficult,” said Pranay Jivrajka, a founding partner of Ola. “You’d have to call one day in advance. We started booking cabs with 12 hours notice, then four hours, and then we started on-demand. And today, if an E.T.A. is more than five minutes, people start complaining.”

Uber had a grander goal. Mr. Kalanick has long said Uber’s primary competition is private car ownership; if Uber can give you a cheap ride instantly, it could conceivably beat the cost and associated hassles of owning your own vehicle. In developed countries like the United States, car ownership is entrenched, but not in India. There was a chance, then, for ride-hailing companies to vault over private car ownership entirely.

“You can’t have every resident of Delhi driving a car — that just wouldn’t work,” Mr. Kalanick said. “They just don’t have the infrastructure to support it, so why build it out? So that will be a big deal.”

The Long Hail

The leapfrogging of private car ownership remains far off. At this point, Uber has 200,400 active drivers on its platform in India. Ola said it has 640,000. Those numbers sound large, until you consider that nearly 400 million people live in India’s cities.

Still, citizens of a certain professional class — tech workers, frequent travelers — said Uber and Ola had become part of the fabric of Indian urban life.

Before Uber, “folks were rather locked up at home,” said Christian Freese, the general manager for Uber’s Bangalore office, where the company has placed its only dedicated engineering center outside of San Francisco. “Now you can see people go out, especially on the weekend. You just press a button and the car is there.”

The New York Times