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A problem of Uber proportions

Let us look at the technology that a company like Uber could have used to make taxis safer and a small effort to dispel some of the ridiculous ideas being perpetuated as ‘perfect’ future solutions, writes Rajiv Makhni.

brunch Updated: Dec 20, 2014 16:09 IST
Rajiv Makhni
Rajiv Makhni
Hindustan Times

Uber came riding a wave of technology and powered its way to a reported valuation of about $40 billion. That means it was bigger than any car-rental company, bigger than most hotel chains, bigger than some airlines and even bigger than Twitter.

Its expansion worldwide was unprecedented and it was signing up drivers and cars faster than it could accommodate. And then it screwed up its dream run with some really silly internal processes and messed up on what it touted as its most critical reason for success: Technology!

This column isn’t a debate on whether banning Uber was the right thing to do as that’s clearly an emotional knee-jerk reaction rather than a well-thought-out strategy to make taxi travel safer. It is about the technology that Uber could have used and a small effort to dispel some of the ridiculous ideas being perpetuated as ‘perfect’ future solutions.

Night-vision drones to patrol our cities
They are apparently already being used on a rental basis by the police in Delhi and they are about to acquire a gigantic fleet soon. The capital city will be patrolled by these low-flying drones that will keep signalling a quick response team as soon as they spot trouble.

Travel safe: Cab companies should introduce a feature within their apps to click a picture of the driver with the number plate.

Some of the buzzwords that seem to have been ignored are cost, battery life and flying time, expertise to fly them, size of the city, security and safety, and about a dozen other huge hurdles. To patrol a city the size of Delhi, they’ll need about 50,000 of them and at about Rs 10 lakh for every drone – you do the math.

Coming ‘soon’? A fleet of driverless taxis!
Other than ROTFL and then giving a standing ovation, I have no reaction. The idea itself is ingenious but the imagination of the politicians and people behind this fantasy is astounding.

Driverless cars are just about at prototype level, they still need years to be perfected and they currently come with a set of problems much bigger than all the problems we face today.

To use ‘driverless cars’ and the word ‘soon’ in the same sentence easily wins the Oxymoron Of The Year Award.

Throwing the baby out with the bath water
Let’s first recognise that Uber’s technology will play the role of a saviour here. Services like Uber play a real role in solving serious urban transport problems.

With almost no investment in car fleets and driver salaries – the Ubers of this world offer cost-efficient transportation that is sometimes lower priced than unruly three-wheeler autos.

This empowers entrepreneurs to have a livelihood and introduces efficiencies iFnto an unorganised market where government-led public transport is a gigantic failure. What’s needed is a better technology to take this to its next logical step.

Make it tamper proof: A SIM-card-based GPS tracker that is constantly showing the car on a map monitored by the company can be useful.

Some things that could have been done

Uber provided each driver with a data-enabled smartphone that ran a driver-side version of the Uber App. And if the driver powered off this phone, Uber was left with nothing else to do but twiddle its thumbs.

So let us go through the process all over again. The first thing that can be done is

utilise dual fail-safe technologies.

Companies like Uber have enough funding to come up with a proprietary device that is hardwired into the car battery. Thus to disable it, the driver must go through a far more intricate process than just pressing the power off button of a smartphone.

This device would run the Uber app, signal to the passenger that the system is on with a green light on at all times and have a panic button on it accessible to the passenger. This device must also have a video camera attached that records the activity all through the journey.

The second device that would act as a back-up would be an almost-impossible-to-access

SIM-card-based GPS tracker

installed that is constantly showing the car on a map monitored by the company. Lots of people have these as an anti-theft system as well as fleet management tools.

Will these add-ons slow down the frenzied growth and expansion of companies like Uber? Yes! But it is a fraction of what bad press and poor safety incidents will do to completely shut it down.

Make tech your own sidekick
The third role must be played by the government. Taxi driving licences as well as permits must go high-tech with biometrics as well as serious background checks that go onto a centralised database accessible to all companies that are going to hire the drivers. This process must start now.

The fourth would be a role played by you, the passenger. Take a picture of the driver that comes to pick you up standing next to the car with the number plate clearly visible and email or WhatApp that to a few friends before you start the journey. Cab companies must encourage this as well as build it as a feature into their app itself and educate the drivers about it too.

Newer technologies in the future will be able to get rid of almost all safety and security problems. Till then some of these can be implemented right away.

Do you believe there are more things that could be done using current technology? Write to me on Twitter and let us make sure that tech becomes the hero of this story and not the villain it seems to be right now.

Rajiv Makhni is managing editor, Technology, NDTV, and the anchor of Gadget Guru, Cell Guru and Newsnet 3

From HT Brunch, December 21
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First Published: Dec 18, 2014 18:15 IST