Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The not so good effects of Cab-age

In the nineties if you wanted to get Venture Capital (VC) funding for your start-up, you had to be located preferably in the San Francisco Bay Area, better known as the Silicon Valley, in California, and surely working on something hi-tech. That was the time when companies like Google and Amazon, which changed our lives in ways beyond fathomable some fifteen years ago, were founded and funded. 

A fast forward to the present times. VC funding has changed a lot. You no longer need to be working on something hi-tech in some latest and greatest cutting edge technology to get VC funding. Nor do you have to be located in the Bay Area. Companies like Flipkart, Snapdeal, Myntra, Red Bus and many others have proved that VCs have really "globalized" and that their focus has changed too. Flipkart et al may not be working on the latest technologies, but they are indeed changing lives in India like perhaps Google and Amazon have been doing for the past one decade. 

One more genre of start-ups is getting lots of funding. They are the new age cabbies.

Gone were the days, anyway, of those black and yellow cabs (if not in other cities, but surely in Bangalore) you would wave your hands to stop by the road. We were already in the age of the radio taxies. But they were often not metered and there was always a grey area about the final amount you would pay. Often the drivers were not reliable. As a solution for all the maladies came the new age app-based cabbies, very much like saviors. You could now book a cab in just a few clicks on your smart phones. You would know exactly how much you have to pay. The drivers would be well mannered, reliable, always under surveillance and hence, surely trustworthy. They wouldn't charge you any thing extra. People across the country were just waiting for such a thing to happen. We were elated. Gone are the days, we all thought, of cab menace. The growing demand for such cabs excited the VCs, who started pouring in funds into it. Taxi4Sure, Ola, Uber and their likes made news with series of fat VC fundings. We all expected things to change for better. That's when there was a twist in the story.

With the aggressive advertisements of throw away goodies and amazing experience, a huge number of people really got interested in using cabs more and more. Some deals sounded so attractive that people even started using cabs in stead of their cars. That was indeed a great thing, given the state of the already congested roads in India. But, as the going says, nothing is fairy tale in this world.

I got the rude shock when I used Uber for the first time. Uber has already made roars in the west, trying to put the conventional cabbies off their jobs and attracting the wrath of the cab-unions in the US and Europe. Many people in the Bay Area are said to be preferring Uber to their own cars, given the hassles in parking cars in cities like San Francisco. I was excited about using Uber. I downloaded their app in my smart phone and booked a cab in just a few clicks, as expected and the cab too came on time. But while boarding the cab I was suspicious as there was no way to figure out if it was an Uber cab. The name "Uber" was written no where on the body of the cab. Neither was any identity card of the driver displayed in the cab, as has been the norm in most of the radio cabs. Perhaps Uber doesn't fall into the category of radio cab - it's app cab -, I thought. The only thing that gave me some confidence that the cab perhaps belonged to Uber was the iPhone the driver used to click the "Start" button before pressing on the gas pedal. So it was very clear that Uber doesn't conform to any of the norms that we were getting used to with the advent of the radio-taxies. The trustworthiness of the driver was a question, as was also the cab itself. It could have been any car, not even the one authorized by Uber. What authorization process does Uber follow? I did have the question in my mind. Soon a friend of mine told that once he had got a Meru Cab when he had booked an Uber. The driver of the Meru cab told my friend that he was authorized both by Meru and Uber. Not much later did we hear about an Uber driver raping a lady in Delhi. We came to know that that particular cab didn't even have the GPS system by which each cab is supposed to be tracked every moment by the operator. If the cab had the GPS and had Uber tracked it, as we expect from these new age cabbies, there wouldn't have been the rape. It's fairly a simple technology to figure out something amiss when a car suddenly stops (as it stopped when the driver raped the lady) for a long time during a trip in the middle of the night. So my suspicion of the first day of my experience with Uber about their authorization process and the trustworthiness of their drivers was not baseless.

Secondly, Uber doesn't have any customer care number. So if you're stuck with any problem you're at God's mercy. I heard when an Uber cab booked from Delhi airport declined to go to Noida and the passenger was dropped off in the middle, he could do nothing. Worse, the minimum charge was deducted from his credit card and he had to exchange many mails with Uber to get a closure on the issue. It's ridiculous to not have any customer care number.

Well, so how good are the other operators. All are facing tremendous teething problems and the customers are at a loss in many places. Meru has been advertising that if you pay through their wallet (sort of a prepaid system where you load a "wallet" with some amount and you've a cash less ride) you get a 30% discount. I loaded Rs 1100 into Meru wallet using their app. I received confirmation from credit card about the payment, but even after a day my wallet showed zero. In between I made a trip on Meru. Forget 30% discount, the driver insisted I pay him cash as my wallet didn't show any balance. Upon getting through their customer care after half an hour, during which I was seated inside the car, and shouting at the lady on the other side of the phone I got down of the car without paying anything to the driver. Even after a day, during which I tried reaching their customer care number of times, the wallet showed zero balance. Even now I don't know what has happened to the money that was charged by Meru but which seems to have gone into a black hole. The customer care was totally ignorant and I was asked to get in touch with credit card company to sort the issue.

Let's talk about Taxi4Sure now. They have really great deals, some of which are supposed to be cheaper than auto fares. Well and good. I was excited again, as I'm always a very pardoning and patient customer. I downloaded their app. It displayed that the nearest cab was 15 mins away from me. I was very happy. Wow, I said to myself. When I clicked on "Book" it said "Sorry". I kept on trying many times and every time it told the nearest cab was just few minutes from me but never could I book a cab. Here again it raises serious questions about the technology support. Such things ought to make me suspicious about their motive. 

I personally haven't used Ola and Mega for quite a while since both of them had failed to send cab and I had a terrible time at the last moment, struggling to arrange for alternative. What was atrocious was their inability to arrange for an alternative, leaving me in distress. But that was before the apps came into vogue.

I hope these are really teething issues and they may learn from their past mistakes. Nevertheless, the customer can't be made subjects of their beta testing. There's no doubt that consistently across all the operators, they lack several basic things and proper technology support. It's a question if they are trying to optimize their cost and knowingly ignoring several things or they are really trying to cope up with teething problems. Only time will tell. Till then, customers have no way than to get harassed and cheated.

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