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Uber’s Karun Arya: Demand and supply decide city expansions


In the first part of this two part interview series, Karun Arya, Uber’s communications lead for Southeast Asia and India spoke about regulatory challenges and driver incentives etc. In the second part, we explore the company’s driver policies, pricing, liability and more:

MediaNama: What kind of issues do drivers face? Any particular ones that stand out

Karun Arya: I don’t think there’s any particular issue…After Uber and others came into the market, gradually and slowly, the concept of being a driver was changing. It was becoming a little more respected profession than it was before. Drivers used to be looked down upon but now we see so many people who are business professionals, white collared professionals to homemakers that drive on Uber part time, or have actually bought a number of cars attached to the Uber platform, because they realise the value it brings… Now, the perception of being a driver has taken a big hit because of various incidents, and because more than 99% of these people are honest hardworking individuals just trying to make a better living. That’s the biggest challenge on the driver side.

MediaNama: What kind of processes does a driver have to go through in order to sign up on Uber?

Karun Arya: There’s a number of things: he/she obviously has to go through a pretty intensive half day training program where we cover passenger safety, safe driving techniques, passenger-rider etiquette. Also in terms of the required paperwork required, a driver has to have a valid commercial license or permit. The vehicle needs to be commercially registered with commercial insurance. Every driver must obtain police verification and they all undergo an independent third party background check by our vendor First Advantage. We also take their bank account info. We make sure that we have actual electronic copies of all this documentation for every driver partner and we’re pretty much the only app which has a recent photo of every driver.

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MediaNama: Under what kind of situations do you terminate a driver’s relationship with your platform? Do they have to maintain a particular rating, because I read somewhere that it has to be 4.5…

Karun Arya: I think it’s 4.5 for the US or some of those markets, but in India, it probably ranges between 4.2 to 4.5, because it’s very easy being a new driver for whom 5 trips out of 10 are bad. Then you can have a pretty poor rating. Its aggregated over time. But there’s various occasions like if there’s consistent bad feedback, that person can be suspended, he can be given a warning, he might need to go through re-training or he could be permanently deactivated from the platform, meaning that he’ll never be able to drive on Uber again. Depending on the specific situation, it can have one of those 3-4 outcomes.

Karun Arya

MediaNama: Is this based on a sample size of 100 trips or say a 1,000 trips?

Karun Arya: No. Not all new drivers have formal education or are familiar with technology or how GPS works. But in that time, they could get a few bad ratings. So we’ve taken drivers who have done just a few trips and those who’ve done a 1,000 trips off as well. You can never predict future behaviour looking at past behaviour, so it’s really varied. But every piece of feedback that we receive from riders on the 100,000s of trips that we do daily is reviewed and we take action accordingly.

MediaNama: Do you see high attrition among drivers?

Karun Arya: It’s very low, actually. I don’t have that data but we’ve had a lot of drivers who have been with us since we launched in India and even in the US. They’re doing fantastically well. One of the first drivers who joined us in San Francisco now owns a fleet of 100 cars and is a multimillionaire!

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MediaNama: What kind of trainings do drivers undergo?

Karun Arya: They go through trainings conducted by our employees and staff and that covers things like how to use the app, GPS navigation, how to interact with riders about payment, how to provide a high quality of service of rider-driver etiquette (like opening the door for them, help the riders with their luggage). A critical component of the training is on safety, making sure that they know, regardless of whether it’s a man or a woman, the passenger in their car is the highest safety priority. They need to respect the rider, their privacy and their space. Even though the car is the driver’s office space, a rider is paying to be in it and have that service of being moved from Point A to Point B, and making sure it’s a community experience.

MediaNama: What can a user expect from a Uber driver?

Karun Arya: A number of things. Every Uber driver comes from a really diverse background. In terms of quality of service, we strive to ensure that our driver partners are always providing the highest quality of service, and like I said, respecting their space and privacy and safety. It goes back to that safety foundation where, at no point during a Uber ride should a rider ever be unsafe. This is what we try and drill into our driver partners to make sure they understand and respect that.

MediaNama: Do drivers have any control over the pricing of the services?

Karun Arya: No.

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MediaNama: Do you provide the drivers with any particular data?

Karun Arya: We definitely alert the drivers on high traffic areas. We know the central business district areas in every city, which is where most of the office goers are. We tell them about those areas which are areas of high demand. Once the drivers are made aware of this, they can go to those areas to get more customers. We also share information on how they can constantly improve their levels of service, quality and safety that they provide.

MediaNama: Do you meet the drivers on a regular basis?

Karun Arya: We do pretty frequent driver appreciation events which happen on a quarterly basis.

MediaNama: When you open in a new city, how do you hire drivers? Do you tie up with local cab companies?

Karun Arya: No, we don’t work with taxi companies, it’s by the transportation companies essentially. Our expansion teams make sure that they are able to build that network. When I say network, I mean it’s these transportation companies that provide point to point services. We work with transportation companies who rent to a lot of hotels as well, and identify other companies and educate them about what Uber is so they can take advantage of our technology.

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MediaNama: Are there are any particular issues you’ve faced with payments in India?

Karun Arya: (laughs) The RBI thing, I mean, that was resolved. Since then, we’ve introduced a number of new options including cash. The cash experiment in Hyderabad was a global first for us and now we’re taking cash payments in multiple cities in India. We recently also launched a cash experiment in Vietnam. So we share with our global teams the learnings we made from the cash experiment in India.

MediaNama: After introducing the Paytm wallet, did you see an increase in the number of Uber users?

Karun Arya: I wasn’t looking after India when we announced Paytm but I do know that there was probably a dip at first. But at Uber, we like to use a term called ‘negative churn’, which means that even if people use the service and drop off, the catchiness and stickiness of the service is so high, that these people will come back and do more trips. It’s something we’ve seen with Paytm and Paytm has grown as well.

MediaNama: Who would you say are your primary users? Is the service more of a niche or is it targeted towards the mass market? Also, what are the demographics of users in India?

Karun Arya: Our objective is to be available for everyone that can have a safe, reliable, convenient, affordable ride for everyone, anytime anywhere. And that’s also why we’ve introduced various products which are priced differently, along with various payment options, so that everyone can have access to Uber. I think that the India demographics are changing rapidly. I say that because we launched cash. Earlier, it was restricted to people who had either a credit card or a bank account or those who were familiar with how to do electronic payments and banking. But with cash, it’s open to everyone, so those demographics are going to change overnight and it’s going to be a vast demographic.

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MediaNama: Growth-wise, do you see more new users or existing ones?

Karun Arya: Both, existing users are using it more and more and new users are rapidly growing… and using it more and more.

MediaNama: At what time do most Uber trips happen?

Karun Arya: Generally, the high traffic times of peak hours when people are going to work and returning from work, on weekends late at night when people go out drinking and partying with family or friends, those are peak hours as well.

MediaNama: What is the average duration of a trip and do you work towards reducing it in any way?

Karun Arya: That’s a good question. In India, I think it might be pretty high because of the traffic, but I’m not sure about it. We don’t necessarily work towards reducing the average duration of the trip because people want to go where they want to go. I don’t think that we have control over reducing a trip duration, but of course, it’s a long term vision that we have. As Uber hits scale in the US and a couple of other markets, we’ve launched this product called UberPool, which is basically carpooling. With this, the drivers are on what we call a perpetual trip and because the liability of Uber becomes pretty significant where it’s just there all the time. People stop driving, that’s cars off the road, so traffic goes down and congestion reduces. Then yeah, you’ll have an impact on the duration of the trip, because.. it’s more efficient to get from Point A to B.

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MediaNama: How do you address complaints of drivers cancelling rides?

Karun Arya: (laughs) That’s a good question as well. It’s something we do in training with the driver, making sure that drivers don’t cancel trips. I know that it happened recently as well because drivers have been scared of enforcement in certain cities. Police have been challaning them, fining them, but we do all we can to ensure that drivers never say no and always accept rides.

MediaNama: Where does the liability of Uber end during and after the trip?

Karun Arya: When a rider signs up on using the service, the terms and conditions are pretty clear in terms of liability and while anyone is on a Uber trip, that ride is fully insured. You’re covered by insurance during the ride, not before or after. In those terms and conditions, we’re pretty explicit about where the liability is and indemnifies Uber from anything that may happen between the rider and the driver on the trip.

MediaNama: Do you have plans to expand UberAuto to other cities?

Karun Arya: I hope so, I honestly don’t know but I hope so.

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MediaNama: I could’ve answered that!

Karun Arya: At the moment there aren’t any plans, but I don’t make these decisions. Presently, it’s only focused in Delhi.

MediaNama: What kind of criteria do you consider before expanding to a new city?

Karun Arya: Demand and supply. Is there a demand for Uber, which there is; we can say that every time somebody opens the app looking for an Uber. How is the supply there, is the driver community large enough, is there enough supply of cars, what the economic terms are, and speaking with the authorities and the policy makers in a new city or state.

MediaNama: Do you have plans to aggregate local cabs in Bombay and Kolkata?

Karun Arya: I don’t believe so. We’ve never been a taxi aggregator business, only taxi booking app. We do have a product called Uber Taxi in a few markets around the world, Singapore including, where we aggregate kaali-peeli like taxis, but that’s not our core business and I don’t think that’s something we would look at in India.

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MediaNama: Under what kind of circumstances would you look at opening UberFresh in India?

Karun Arya: I think once we’ve built up our core products, which we’re extremely focused on at the moment, and we have that supreme reliability where you’re assured of getting a ride within 3-5 minutes, then it will make sense to introduce something like Uber Fresh here. If we’re delivering hot food, it needs to be hot, you don’t want it to be stuck in traffic for 30 minutes and then showing up… We do pop up marketing and promotions from time to time. We’ve done ice cream globally once a year and there’s a lot of opportunities to introduce other things.

MediaNama: Which car segments perform the best on Uber?

Karun Arya: The Swift Dzire is extremely popular and then the Toyota Innova. It sort of depends, but Dzire is at the top…

MediaNama: I came across an article which said that Maruti Suzuki car sales were being boosted because of the number of Uber drivers signing up for them. Do you have to make any deals with car dealers?

Karun Arya: We have partnerships or agreements with the manufacturers themselves; on the financing side as well, for drivers to get into a vehicle financing program so that they get better loan rates and lower down payment.

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MediaNama: How many employees do you have in India?

Karun Arya: We have around 150-160.

MediaNama: Any plans to develop your own wallet here?

Karun Arya: I haven’t heard anything internally, so I honestly don’t know if that’s something we’re doing or not. A lot of our team was surprised after TOI published an article about it. So I’ve asked and haven’t heard back. (The interview was conducted the same day the article came out.)

MediaNama: What percentage of rides pay by cash?

Karun Arya: I’m not sure. It’s a percentage that’s growing as we expand cash to more cities, but I don’t think we would share that information.

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Note: Responses have been edited for brevity

Written By

I'm a MediaNama alumna from 2015-16 (remember TinyOwl?) now back to cover e-services like food and grocery delivery, app based transport and policies, platforms and media in India.

MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.



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