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Uber is easy, not safe: Delhi cab rape exposes flaws in app-based services

For those catching up on the chilling details of the rape of a 27-year-old woman executive in Delhi, it's not just the fact that it took place in a metropolis that is distressing, it's the fact that it involved a Uber taxi, a taxi booking app that has steadily gained popularity as a safer, 'posher' alternative to the regular 'kala - peeli' taxies that regularly ply the roads of our cities.

After all, as the app itself proudly declared, it is 'everyone's private driver'.  So a white BMW? Yes please. And with it, the automatic assumption that you are safe. That because of smartphone apps and GPS, the company knows who is driving you and where you are.

But as the Delhi rape has rudely shown us, this is not the case at all.

The young rape survivor in this case, had booked a car using the app and dozed off only to be driven to a desolate location where she was first molested, then threatened with an iron rod, '16 December gangrape style' and finally raped. And the driver of the car made a relatively easy getaway, he just switched off the phone that contained the app, rendering him untraceable. It was really that easy.

Uber cabs, unlike radio taxi fleet services like Meru or Tab cab, do not have mandatory GPS trackers. They do not actually own the vehicles themselves and therefore have limited say in what features the vehicles must possess. Instead they use the smartphone with the installed Uber app, as the tracking device for the vehicle.

A spokesperson for Uber was quoted as saying in a statement that they had immediately suspended the driver's account and said that they worked with "licensed driver-partners to provide a safe transportation option, with layers of safeguards such as driver and vehicle information, and ETA-sharing to ensure there is accountability and traceability of all trips that occur on the Uber platform."

Comforting? Not really.

 Uber is easy, not safe: Delhi cab rape exposes flaws in app-based services

Reuters image

Let's translate this into English: Uber and other purely app-based based services tie up with existing cab permit owners to get them to join their service. They have a nifty smartphone app that shows you who will be picking you up, and when. And that's it.

So essentially, as a customer, you give the company your location, a cab picks you up and you're on your way. How many of us really check the photo sent to us against the driver in the car?

The flaws with this system have been exposed in the US as well.

Drivers there have also been accused of rape and fondling women passengers and unfortunately Uber, in particular, hasn't come out looking like a paragon of virtue with its PR team accused of discrediting women complainants and allegedly threatening to misuse customer data against journalists who have raised concerns against the company.

App-based services are expanding in India and Uber just raised a billion dollars to expand in Asia. Like Indian competitor Ola, which also raised $250 million in a fresh round of funding, they are actively trying to attract drivers, both off the market and from one another. Which means that their primary focus is on getting new drivers. So they may not necessarily be checking on a cab working across multiple services.

For drivers, switching off a taxi app is the equivalent of him saying he's not available. But for a taxi owner to maximise his earnings, all he needs to do is switch apps and let another driver take over.

A driver from one such app-based service, who was ferrying us in Delhi, claimed he knew of drivers who had both Uber and Ola apps on their phones and had backup drivers take over when they were done for the day.  He claimed that this situation was likely to continue right until there was either some form of consolidation in the market or the taxi apps grew wiser about whether drivers were misusing their permits.

Do these cabs really run background checks on their drivers? They're presumed to. The only layer of security that the services are presumed to provide in India is because they're tying up with existing taxi permit holders, which means that the owner of the taxi is presumed to have done a background check on his driver. And if the driver owns the taxi, then it's presumed that he's a good man who has a taxi permit and isn't a complete psycho.

One of the major reasons you're willing to pay at times twice the cost of a regular cab for a vehicle booked through a purely app-based service like Uber, is the luxury and the belief that it's a little bit safer. And you believe it just because you're driver often maintains himself better than a regular taxi driver, your car is air-conditioned and the vehicle's in much better shape.

But in light of the Delhi incident what anyone using such services must realise is that until these services become more accountable, you're no safer because you used your smartphone to book a cab. It's definitely more convenient, but just because you're in a fancier car, it doesn't mean you're any safer than in a regular cab.

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Updated Date: Dec 08, 2014 09:06:32 IST

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