Keep your faith in us, Uber tells Sri Lanka

– Ride-hailing giant bolsters safety in response to public outcry

By Uwin Lugoda

Uber South Asia Head of Central Operations Pavan Vaish speaking to The Sunday Morning Business

Uber Sri Lanka has reaffirmed its commitment to Sri Lanka with the addition of new safety features in an agile response to widespread criticism and says it hopes the country keeps its faith in the global ride-hailing giant.
“I sincerely hope Sri Lanka’s faith in us is not lost; I think it just took a bump. We are absolutely committed to bringing world-leading technology to people in Sri Lanka, which enhances both the rider and driver’s experience and ups the bar on safety,” said Uber South Asia Head of Central Operations Pavan Vaish.
He was speaking at an event where Uber announced the introduction of three new safety features to their platform here in Sri Lanka. This launch came following an outcry by the public pertaining to the multinational ride-hailing company’s lack of accountability when it comes to their driver partners.
Uber first entered Sri Lanka four years ago, within which time they introduced the market to a number of different products including Uber Go, Uber Premier, Uber Zip, Uber Intercity, Uber Tuks, and Uber Moto. The company even went on to dub Sri Lanka the tuk capital of the Uber universe, after Colombo became the fastest growing market for the service.
However, following several instances of Uber’s driver partners threatening the safety of riders, the Sri Lankan market called for a boycott of the app on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. The most recent incident was posted on Facebook on 10 February by Uber user Pujana Wethasinghe, who recounted the attempted stabbing by an Uber driver partner over a disagreement over the payment method.
The San Francisco-based company was then scrutinised by Facebook users on the lack of a helpline for the Sri Lankan market and their lack of response to these incidents.
In a press event held last Thursday (27), Uber unveiled three new safety features which include the Uber Safety Helpline, RideCheck, and PIN (personal identification number) Verification. These are set to enhance the safety and experience of both the rider and driver partner.
The Uber Safety Helpline is active 24×7 for riders to get in touch with Uber’s safety team should they face an urgent but non-emergency issue during the trip. These issues can include the misbehaviours of and arguments with driver partners or a breakdown.
“Riders can now tap on the shield icon, choose the safety helpline icon, and swipe to immediately connect with our response team, where safety experts will be available 24×7,” said Vaish.
However, we were not provided clarification on the meaning of the phrase “urgent but non-emergency” when inquired.
Vaish stated that the feedback they got from the market last year showed them that Sri Lankan users wanted a helpline. However since it is a new feature, Uber wanted to make sure the system was robust, and so extensively tested the system before rolling out the pilot.
“Whenever we put out new features or new technologies, we make sure they are enterprise-grade and that it works flawlessly. So it does take some time to build a reliable product.”
RideCheck, the second new safety feature, is set to enable Uber to flag certain trip irregularities, such as long and unexpected stops, which may in some cases indicate an increased safety risk to the rider. When an irregularity is detected, Uber will initiate a “RideCheck” by reaching out to both the rider and the driver partner. According to Vaish, this marks the first step by Uber to proactively reach out to users during a trip and offer tools they may need to get help.
Finally, Uber unveiled PIN Verification, a safety pin that verifies the user’s trip to ensure they are getting into the vehicle they are matched with through the app. Riders will receive a four-digit pin that they can provide to their driver, who will then use that pin to start the trip. This would also prevent the driver starting trips without the rider being inside the vehicle.
In addition to this, the company is also working on advanced technologies that will use ultrasound waves to automatically transmit the safety PIN for verified rides.
“At Uber, we are constantly evaluating how to raise the standards by integrating the feedback we receive from riders on how they would like to communicate with us,” said Vaish.
Speaking to The Sunday Morning Business, Vaish stated that they were deeply pained by the recent incidences and have learnt that is very helpful for riders to be able to reach a trained Uber agent while on their trips.
“We think that having a helpline that will help riders reach a Uber representative in Sri Lanka will end up addressing many of the issues we are currently facing.”
Apart from the new features, Vaish stated they are also having a dedicated team that works alongside law enforcement for certain incidences which require the involvement of the authorities, including providing them with any details such as trip details and driver details, in order to assist them in their investigations.
He also claimed that any driver partners found misbehaving on the app will never be allowed to serve as Uber driver partners again.
Speaking on the card payment issue that has plagued Sri Lanka’s Uber users, Vaish stated that as far as Uber is concerned, riders have the option to pay with any of the payment methods available in the app.
“We believe that when riders pay using card, it is a frictionless experience, and it is also a safer experience because they are not dealing with physical cash.”
As for the drivers, he stated that Uber does not cut any additional cost if it is a card payment and pays their driver partners across the country on a weekly basis, which is not unique to Sri Lanka. He went on to state that Uber is always open to the feedback they get from their driver partners and also have several green light centres which they can bring their issues to.
Vaish stated that the company is in the process of rolling out training for all their driver partners, which they can even partake in digitally through the app itself without having to come to their green light centres.
“Our driver partners have multiple channels to get in touch with us. The first one is our driver partner helpline which has always been there, which they have around-the-clock access to. Secondly, we have our green light centres where they can walk in and get serviced.”
As for driver cancellation fees, Vaish explained that riders only get charged for driver cancelations if the driver had come to the location and the rider has not been there. However, he stated that riders will not be charged if the driver partner cancelled without making any progress, and if they are charged by accident, riders can use the help tab on the app to inform the company and after the issue is evaluated, the money will immediately be refunded.
According to Vaish, Uber completes a large number of trips every day, and only a small fraction of these have issues. He went on to explain that these issues are not unique to Sri Lanka and appear in other markets as well, but there are also issues that are also exclusive to them.
He stated that Uber’s strength is in its ability to listen to user feedback and evolve. They are committed to enhancing both the rider and driver partner’s experience and increasing their safety, he said.
“We introduced the helpline after we saw the feedback from the market here. Today, many of the things we have done are industry-firsts, because we have a significant investment in machine learning and artificial intelligence for this to happen.”