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Three Months with Uber in Chennai

Here in Chennai I’ve been using Uber almost twice a day for three months. I have an office to get to each day and would not dare rent a car to drive in peak Indian traffic. Uber’s worth persisting with because it’s cheaper than the Auto’s (rickshaws) (for a foreigner anyway). Using an app also navigates around the need to speak a foreign language to call a taxi. The other option is the bus, which I’m not keen on hanging off the side of each morning.

Uber has a few competitors, the most prominent being local start up Ola Cabs. Ola provides an almost identical service, except it cannot charge to foreign credit cards — a bug bear for almost all online services here in India. So cash payment is required and many of their drivers do not carry cash.

Ola also floods you with notifications. You get an SMS and an email when you book, and SMS when it arrives and an SMS and email when you reach the destination. In addition to notifications from the app. Lastly, in my experience there are less Ola's than Uber's on the road when I've wanted them.

So I’ve stuck with Uber.

It’s been an interesting user experience, laced with varying levels of frustration. Here’s my compiled thoughts. Perhaps they may prove useful to Uber head office to improve their product.

Basic Training

I’m not entirely sure how much training each driver receives before becoming a certified Uber driver. It can’t be much. On more than one instance I’ve trained the driver how to begin and end the ride using the app.

Many drivers struggle to use a map, or do not rely on it. The unreliability that plagued early GPS units for years continues to be a problem here — and with good reason. The streets of Chennai are inconsistently named and poorly marked on both Google and Apple Maps. In those apps, anything from a four lane road, to an unpaved goat track, may be marked as a traversable road.

This is where the idealised version of a service dreamed up in the United States clashes against the developing world.

However many drivers use this as an excuse to sit and wait after accepting your ride until you call them. Don’t have a local number to call them? You’re out of luck. Fortunately I do have a local SIM, but the phone number on my account is an Australian number, leading to many complaints when my driver arrives that they could not call me.

If they had’ve called me, it would’ve been yet another difficult bad-English/butchered-Tamil conversation.

Unreliable Hardware

Inconsistent mapping data aside, some drivers are almost impossible to track because their GPS location bounces all over the place. It is my understanding that Uber provides their drivers a phone from a small choice of devices. In my experience, drivers with Samsung phones have notoriously poor GPS data, both when arriving to the pick up and trying to navigate to the destination. Though this is of course anecdotal.

Multi-Point Trips

Recently my trips have required dropping off my son at school and then heading to work. Some drivers are happy to do this in one trip, but others began to complain. Citing ‘incentives’. I tried to clarify this with Uber support and after getting varying answers finally received word that Uber incentivises drivers to do as many trip as possible in a day.

This is fine, except the service lacks a ‘rebook’ function.

So you can be dropped off at your first point. Have the trip end. Tap to book a new Uber. Then look your Uber driver in the eye while you wait for them to accept it.

Again, where the service fails in the developing world is you may be in an area where you have okay network coverage but they do not. Leading to a situation where you’re sitting in an Uber driver’s car and another Uber 10km away accepted your ride.

So drivers are incentivised to break your trip into segments, with no reliable way to string those segments together. The service fails both the user and the driver in this instance.

This case may be an outlier, but it’s one created by their own incentives.

Localisation

Another GPS issue; everything is in written English. Of all the drivers I have had in three months I’d say maybe one spoke close to reasonable English. That does not mean though that he could read English.

The Uber app is written entirely in English, as is Google Maps. So entering an address on screen, or messaging the driver where to pick you up, is unreliable. With Uber’s international expansion one might think they’d localise their own app.

Localisation 2

Many drivers do not seem to be from Chennai. More than one has blindly followed GPS directions down a goat track. Just like the one driving me as I write this blog post just did.

I’m not sure why this is.

Cancellation

You can cancel your Uber trip for free if the driver is five minutes over their ETA and has not yet arrived. Problem is, unless you write down the ETA at the time you called the Uber, then keep an eye on the time, you’re not quite sure when this time is.

Also if you cancel your Uber, and request another one, the same driver can pick it up again.

I’m not sure why this is.

Uber is growing!

In our time here we've gone from seeing Surge Pricing during peak morning and afternoon time, to not at all. The drivers I can have a basic conversation with tell me they like being Uber drivers, but that their numbers have increased so much you may be in the car from 8am-12am each day just to get enough rides to make some money.

Great for the user, not so much for the driver.

Conclusion

The more I’ve used the service the more I’ve come to know its quirks and I’ve become less frustrated with it. This may be because every complaint I’ve ever had with the service I’ve sent them a detailed trip review, or may be because I’ve become worn down over time. Or perhaps a bit of both.

It is a better short-travel experience than all other methods, especially for foreigners, but it is not yet perfect.