Author(s): Raghu Gopal
Uber has experienced its share of bad press during the past several years. Several incidents of driver misbehaviour or even criminal misconduct have damaged its brand and caused concern among customers. The cases have been a rallying call for advocates of increased regulation of ride-hailing services.
Uber, cognisant of the problem, is offering app-based peace of mind. It recently announced new features for its app to reassure people that it's safe to travel in its cars, including a way for passengers to call the emergency services directly from the app. The new safety measures are part of Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi's efforts to turn around the company's safety record and rebuild company goodwill.
On Tuesday, the company made this new feature available and fully operational in the US. The emergency button is located in a new Safety Center menu located on the app's home screen. It allows passengers to quickly contact emergency services should an incident happen during a trip, and also informs them about Uber's approach to screening drivers, its insurance policy and community guidelines.
Uber also introduced an integration pilot that automatically shares a passenger's location and journey details with first responders when the emergency button is used. The move seeks to help reduce the time it takes for emergency services to find the caller, by providing accurate location data. The company is trialling this programme in 10 cities throughout the US.
Safety has become a top concern for ride-sharing services. In 2017, news emerged that Uber had accessed a passenger's health records in India to try and throw out a legal case against the business. In the same year, Transport for London also voiced its concerns about the company's attitude to customer safety, announcing that it would not extend Uber's licence. Uber challenged the decision, and is battling to keep its right to operate in the city. The latest in a series of incidents involved its self-driving car division: in March 2018, a vehicle in its autonomous fleet hit and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona.
The emergency feature was initially tested in India, where passengers — mostly women — have long complained of sexual assault and harassment by drivers. For now the tool is aimed at riders rather than drivers, but a similar panic button for the latter is likely to be added soon.
Uber will be hoping that the mere existence of a panic button will deter misbehaviour by drivers as well as customers. Although the effort is commendable, it seems marginally beneficial as both parties could call emergency services outside Uber's domain. The company is keen to show it's serious about taking action, and hopes to circumvent new regulations or even bans in some markets. Relatively light regulation of app-based ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft has given these companies an advantage over traditional taxis, and this is a competitive advantage they need to maintain.
Sign up to our free Daily Insight service here.