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A couple of weeks ago, we spoke with Karun Arya, Uber’s communications lead for Southeast Asia and India to ask him about Uber’s drivers, the regulatory challenges the company faces and driver incentives. In this two part interview series (read part 2 here), we ask him how Uber plans to expand to India, SOS alerts and its challenges as a company:

MediaNama: Where does Uber plan to use the money raised from Tata Opportunities Fund (TOF)?

Karun Arya: TOF’s investment is into Uber Global, its not into Uber India. The money that we raised from different investors goes into our business globally, investing in new markets that we expand to globally, development of new products, in terms of actual products themselves (such as UberEats, UberRush, UberPool in other markets) or into new payments solutions. We’re constantly experimenting with new partners in terms of getting services. Airtel Money is an example of that in India, as is cash payments, but we also explore what other payment solutions make sense to us. The other part is the safety ride: we’re doing a ton to work to ensure that we make Uber as safe and reliable as possible; and a couple of these solutions that we developed for India, is how we invest in safety.

MediaNama: What kind of services do you see developing out of India? There was also the recent $1 billion investment.

Karun Arya: The $1 billion investment, which is again Uber Global, is a commitment to invest in India in the next 6-9 months, that will go into new payment solutions.

“The Airtel partnership is an example, new products like free 4G and WiFi because Uber is paying for all of that data.”

Data charges can be highly subsidised, but the cost is still pretty high, various partnerships of training programs for drivers (we have a partnership with iCare on the women training program), we’re doing a lot of public private partnerships with different ministries in the government. We signed an MoU with the Government of Telangana. The MoU is pretty broad and covers a number of things, one of which is job creation for both men and women from resource poor sections of society and we’re exploring these kind of partnerships in other cities and states in India. Other than that, we will invest in development of new products, human resources, aggressive expansion, public private partnerships, marketing, etc. 

Karun Arya

MediaNama: How does Uber stand to benefit from its partnership with Airtel?

Karun Arya: It’s fantastic because Airtel has a massive subscriber base, they’re the third largest carrier in the world and in India, they have well over 200 million subscribers. This partnership gives us access to that database, and each of those people access to Uber. With free 4G in every car, it enables riders to have a much better experience. In India, where connectivity can be an issue in certain places, cities, certain places in cities, you can always be connected. We’re also giving our drivers the option to choose from highly subsidised mobile, data and voice deals if they choose to do so, it’s not mandatory but they have the choice to get better deals through the partnership.

MediaNama: With respect to the Telangana MoU, are there any plans to open a services centre in India, like maybe a call centre?

Karun Arya: I don’t think we’d do a call centre, sure, maybe in the future, I am not sure, but we haven’t done a call centre anywhere in the world and we’re in over 330 cities in over 60 countries. The feedback system and the customer feedback support has been working fantastically well. We’re opening a massive facility in Telangana which will be used for support services for riders and drivers. It will essentially entail a helpdesk where Uber employees will be stationed, and in case of particular issues, that team will ensure that people are responded to within minutes; over email or even over the phone if needed (and this already happens currently). It will also be scaling up an existing service feature; we have an Incident Response Team (IRT) in Hyderabad, similar to the teams around the world. In critical and emergency situations, when somebody presses the in app SOS button, the team receives a notification saying “X person has pressed the SOS button in Y city and these are the driver details” after which someone from the team will respond.

MediaNama: What kind of SOS alerts do you receive?

Karun Arya: (laughs) I think it’s pretty widespread. When the SOS button was introduced, it would connect the rider with the local police on phone, so they could ask for help immediately, and we documented that this person pressed the SOS button; and based on the SOS alert system, our second phase was created for the law enforcement in India.

Now, if somebody hits the SOS button, three things can happen:

1. A rider will have the option to connect with the police on the phone to speak to them

2. At the same time, an alert is sent to our IRT in real time, giving info about who has pressed the SOS button, allowing them to get in touch with the rider and

3. This option can happen if the SOS solution has been adopted and deployed by the local police in every city. Its really up to them to say ‘yes, we want this’ and Uber will come and install the systems for them. So then, the police will also receive a real time alert on a dedicated TV screen that we set up for them in the police control room. In any city, a live map will pop up, giving the exact location of the car and the driver and rider details and contact info, stating that this person is in need of help.

It is actually a time critical thing, be it an accident or a case for harassment or assault, this allows the police to respond within seconds, they can dispatch the nearest vehicle on the person from the nearest police station, to attend and provide immediate help to that person.

MediaNama: But what if the police do not accept the Uber solution?

Karun Arya: (laughs) I would say that’s a good question to ask the police why they wouldn’t.

MediaNama: If every company started providing their own security solutions to the police, they could refuse on many grounds. Maybe they want people to go to them directly.

Karun Arya: One is their responsibility to help citizens and the second, which number will you dial when you’re in a situation? The company provided number (whichever company) or 100 (the police helpline)? You have a valid argument about what if they don’t want to be with us, we can only do so much. We can do our part to ensure the safety of the people. If the authorities don’t want to use them, we can’t do much there. But we’ve already rolled this out in a couple of cities in India and are in advanced talks in many other cities to deploy these.

Now what if Ola, Meru etc have their own systems? We discussed this with the police in a number of cities that maybe they don’t want 5 or 10 different screens, but how can we aggregate all that information onto one screen? That’s something that we’re open to doing, ensuring that there’s this 1 screen giving out alerts from Uber, Ola, Meru etc and it’s still up to the police to respond and actually take action when they receive those alerts.

MediaNama: How has it been operating in the country for the last 1.5-2 years? Have things been getting easier with respect to regulation with time?

Karun Arya: On the regulatory side, we still have challenges, but we’re deeply committed to working through them with the authorities and the government to develop a new sector specific regulatory framework. You need to recognise the value and impact that companies like Uber have on the economy, on safety and transportation and also just improving overall and monetising transportation in the country. So I wouldn’t say it has gotten easier or more challenging, I think these challenges will still be there. We’re in very early stages here (in India), less than 2 years and only in 22 cities, we have a long way to go ahead and I’m sure there’ll be bumps ahead as well. But it’s up to us and the authorities to work together to ensure that for the people who use this service everyday (riders and drivers), it is a smooth ride.

MediaNama: What was your biggest challenge in the last 1.5 years?

Karun Arya: I’m not speaking on the behalf of the regulator, but for the policy makers, I think it’s just understanding and learning what services like Uber are and how they operate, and the value that you have to gain. That takes time because it is so new. It has really transformed the transportation industry and it has been disruptive like people have said. With anything so new, there’s always resistance to change because otherwise its status quo ‘cool, haan, chalta hain’. But it’s bringing a lot of improvement and it will take time for people to adopt and embrace that. On the other side, the driver and rider response has been phenomenal and the adoption overwhelming.

MediaNama: So about Delhi… How do you operate in Delhi where it’s now still illegal?

Karun Arya: (laughs) Good question… I would say at the moment, there’s no sort of clear regulatory framework there and there’s still a lot of ambiguity, and we’re engaged with and continue to work with the government in Delhi and the central government to create this new framework which is sector specific. We want to ensure that we are regulated but the regulations be reasonable and appropriate for this sector, and of course, it’s making sure that the safety and interest of the rider and driver community is put first.

MediaNama: In situations like the Mumbai taxi strike, do you engage in talks with taxi unions?

Karun Arya: No, because they have nothing to do with Uber. Even the people they supposedly or allegedly represent most of the time have nothing to do with Uber. We will engage with stakeholders in our business like the policy makers, the drivers and the riders.

MediaNama: With the Hyderabad issue, did you have to speak to the union or the drivers?

Karun Arya: While media reports said that there were 500 drivers at the protest, our on-ground team confirmed that the number of actual drivers attached to the Uber platform was 30-40. The rest of the people had collected autodrivers and bus drivers, members of the union who had showed up and tried to incite unrest and had nothing to do with Uber. Each of the drivers are independent contractors, they’re not employees and they’re obviously not members of unions either. So it’s making sure that our teams work on an individual basis with these drivers to address what concerns they have and that’s exactly what our team has been doing.

MediaNama: So you’re saying the drivers are not employees?

Karun Arya: Yeah, our driver partners are not employees. They don’t have any sort of employment agreement with us. They can drive when they want, not drive when they want, it’s completely independent, they’re independent contractors.

MediaNama: Do the drivers have a timeline or deadline, like they need to work with Uber till a certain period? And what happens when drivers go on long leaves? How do you maintain the number of cars that are still available on the platform? What allows you to do that?

Karun Arya: There’s no timeline for drivers. If you wanted to sign up to become a Uber driver today, and if your verification, insurance and paperwork was cleared, you could start driving today. It’s fine if you went on a long vacation and then drive again, completely up to the driver. The (adoption) is spreading virally and the drivers obviously communicate through their own networks, it spreads through word of mouth and we have a lot of driver marketing.

But everyday, we’re adding hundreds, if not thousands, of drivers onto our platform in India. A lot of these people will never be full time drivers, a lot of them have other jobs.

We have tons of women drivers on the platform, a lot of them drive part time, maybe they need to send their kids to school in the morning or cook at night. Whatever it is, they can choose when and how often they want to drive and that’s why they do it because Uber gives them that flexibility, along with making a fantastic living.

MediaNama: Drivers sign up with multiple platforms like Uber, Ola and Meru. Do you see any conflict happening with drivers going to other platforms?

Karun Arya: No, because they’re not employees and they have complete flexibility. It’s up to them on which platform they want to drive at any given point of time but we know, so obviously we firmly believe in our business and our business model and are confident that even if it is over time, the driver partners will realise that Uber is the best option for them.

MediaNama: How long is it sustainable for you to offer drivers incentives?

Karun Arya: (laughs) I don’t know. Honestly, I think it is an early stage for us in India, it is a period of growth and investment so we will continue in this market for the foreseeable future.

But at the same time, it is always communicated to the drivers that incentives are temporary and as we hit scale… For example, when we launched in Mumbai and Bangalore, the average ETA to get an Uber was 12 minutes. Over the last 2 years, it has come down to about 7 minutes and even less in Bangalore. That’s the objective, to make sure that the ETA to get a car comes down under 5, 4, and 3 minutes. And when that happens, the network efficiency takes place, which means that the utilisation of these assets (cars) increases dramatically.

So regardless of what time in the day it is, we must guarantee that you’ll be able to get a Uber within 5 minutes. When that happens, a lot of people start thinking “Do I need a car or do I need to buy a second car?”… For their daily commute and between all their odd jobs like going to the bank or the movies, they start using Uber and when they start using it more often, the drivers start doing more trips. The more trips that they do per hour, based on making more money organically, and as incentives phase out, since they continue to do more trips per hour, they will continue to make more money. So it’s a really cool cycle in that sense.

Note: Responses have been edited for brevity