Online cab companies drop the ball on key safety feature

  • Binayak Dasgupta, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Dec 08, 2014 21:54 IST

Many taxi booking services in India do not provide a panic button in their mobile applications that can allow a passenger to send out an SOS to select numbers in the event of an emergency, a scenario akin to last week’s alleged rape of a woman in an Uber cab.

The crucial safety feature is seen as a potential life-saver and is cheap and easy to incorporate in an app, yet Uber and its domestic rivals such as Ola do not offer the facility, possibly to cut corners, mobile security experts say.

Earlier this year, the Union government announced an ambitious project to begin satellite-based tracking of public transport users, particularly with the objective of enabling the SOS feature. It set aside more than `1,000 crore for the project.

Autos in the national capital region were mandatorily made to switch to GPS metres that have a panic button, although they are yet to be enabled.

"It's very easy to put in such a feature, especially in an application that is already gathering location data", said Animesh Mishra, senior consultant at Delhi-based Stowe Research, a firm that develops web- and mobile-based applications.

Uber and Ola's applications run on Android and iOS devices - a vast majority of which come with high-accuracy global positioning system modules that can pinpoint a user's location to a radius of 10 metres.

Asked if Uber had considered incorporating such a feature or is planning to do so now, the company only sent a reply that condemned the December 5 alleged rape. It did not comment on the panic button.

An Ola spokesperson accepted their application did not have an SOS button. “Customer can share (their cab) details with friends and family members which can be tracked in real time”, said Anand Subramanian, director of marketing communications.

Uber has the ability to track all its users as well. In a recent controversy one of its officials was found to have tracked a journalist on the company's 'God View' app - a program available only to its employees.

But even for the most efficient of alerting systems, companies would need more complicated programmes that can detect route deviations and set off warnings. In the alleged Delhi rape, the woman had dozed off in the cab and was taken to a secluded place, a route diversion that was not picked up by the service provider.

"Detecting a major deviation or delay will not be hard, but smaller detours can be a challenge," Mishra said, adding that apps could also be configured to throw up a warning if a cab enters localities demarcated as unsafe.

Meru, another leading Indian taxi service, however, has a panic mode feature.

"We have used technology to track each and every trip," Siddhartha Pahwa, Meru's group CEO said in an e-mail statement. He added the company's app has a panic mode feature called ICE (in case of emergency).

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