Time: 1:15 PM: Location: Uber Safety Centre in Vizag. An Uber safety agent takes a call. On the other end is a man in Orissa. He is requesting immediate assistance. He says that his parents, for whom he booked an Uber in Kolkata, are stuck in a car that is not moving.
The agent listens to the man calmly and assures him. Problems arise. And solutions arrive. In this case, the agent has now taken it upon herself to ensure the safety of the man’s parents. She calls the driver of the cab that is stuck on the Howrah Bridge. She learns that the car has broken down in the middle of the road. She tells the driver to keep his calm and ensure the safety of the elderly folks. Next: The Uber agent books a fresh car and sends it on its way to the stalled cab. The new car is diligently tracked on a screen in front of the agent. It reaches and picks up the stranded old couple. The original caller, the man who had booked the cab for his parents, is called back and is told that his parents are safely on the way to their destination.
Time is now 1.35PM.
Inside the Vizag centre – Uber calls it Center of Excellence – there are tens of customer care executives at any given point of time, fielding and answering calls Uber riders – and sometimes drivers – make. As its footprint has grown in India, Uber has also expanded its backroom operations in the country and the Vizag centre is key to the company’s safety and security promise that it makes to its users. In total the centre employs around 600 people and it is the biggest such Uber centre in India. The company also has one more safety centre, which is in Hyderabad.
The calls are of different types. Some come from people, mostly riders, who are panicking or are in some sort of quandary. But some are more mundane, like the one the security agent with whom I am sitting got next. After the call about the stalled cab in Kolkata ended, the agent got a call from Gurgaon. This time the rider has forgotten his glasses in the cab and is requesting Uber to give him the driver’s direct number. The number can’t be shared. But the safety agent connects with the driver and within minutes the man gets his glasses back.
Is it an emergency?
According to Uber, in 2022 Indians spent around 11 billion minutes traveling in Uber cabs making it one of the most popular ride-hailing services in the country. To ensure the safety of both its drivers and riders, the company reveals that it has implemented pre-trip, pro-trip, and post-trip safety measures.
Both drivers and passengers can seek assistance during a trip or within 30 minutes after the ride has ended. The company ensures that these safety agents persistently listen, act, and resolve all the issues raised by riders or drivers.
“At Uber, safety is our utmost priority. We introduced a 24/7 safety hotline in 2019 and now it is available in all the cities where we operate,” Manasi Chadha, Customer Experience Director for Uber India, told India Today Tech. “Around 99 per cent of safety calls on this hotline are attended to within 30 seconds.”
To ensure that more serious calls do not go unattended and are taken care of without any delay, Uber uses machine learning to manage what it calls “Safety Line”. Depending on how the call is routed, it either ends up with the Uber team handling routine calls or the team that manages critical calls.
Just to give you an example, the two calls mentioned earlier in the story were not considered emergencies by Uber. However, just a few desks away, separated from the hubbub, is the quieter part of the office that takes care of emergency calls. These calls are usually related to emergency situations which include abuse, assault, or scenarios where the lives of riders or drivers are in jeopardy.
To understand how the agents attending to these calls work, I move and sit with an agent in this quieter part of the office. A driver has complained. He has written feedback immediately after ending a trip – “Meri 9:30am ki ride me mujhe paise nahi mile. Rider ne gali diya, dusra route lene ko kaha and jab drop kiya to paise dene se mana kiya aur abusive language me baat ki dhamkaya.”
A call is placed to the driver who sent this feedback. During the call the agent reconfirms the details and takes notes. The driver is assured that his concerns would be taken care of. The notes, which the agent has taken, will be passed to the team that would investigate the “incident.”
Depending on what the investigation team finds, says the agent, “Uber gives warnings and sometimes even suspends the drivers or riders from further using Uber.” The agent says that she gets around 6-7 emergency calls a day, both from riders and drivers. In other words, our perception might be that riders are always at the receiving end. But that is just a perception. My time at the Vizag centre showed me that Uber fields safety and security related calls from both riders and drivers.
Way to make Uber rides safer
Explaining the Uber Safety mechanism and how the cases are investigated, Uber APAC safety program head, Mayank Rajput says, “Our teams speak to both the parties (riders and drivers) and provide required support. Their versions are later corroborated with trip facts based on technology and other means.”
Rajput reveals that Uber tracks all the rides in real-time, not just from trip perspective but also for security reasons.
“You must have received safety reminders during your Uber rides, like ‘Are you in danger?’ or ‘Why is the car not moving?’ In case the rider or driver calls for help our team responds accordingly. We also note the time taken by the driver to complete the trip,” he explains.
Significantly, Uber assistance goes beyond real-time phone calls. M Fani, who is another Uber Agent dealing with emergency cases, demonstrates this to me. Fani is reviewing feedback received from drivers and riders in the last few days when she comes across a comment from a driver who flagged a rider for being rude and abusive. Agent Fani swiftly calls him back and asks for details.
More safety features
As millions of people in India use Uber on daily basis, the company is spending time and resources developing new safety features.
“Those (safety features ) are all built in-house, and multiple driver safety features that we have today have all been built in-houseâæ these calls and feedback help us improve and develop services accordingly,” explains Manasi Chaddha.
For safety, Uber offers a variety of in-app safety features, including the ability to add trusted contacts for emergency communication, speed limit alerts and real-time ID checks.
Describing Uber’s commitment to prioritising safety, Sooraj Nair, the Head of Safety Operations for Uber India and South Asia, tells India Today Tech: “Recently, we collaborated with law enforcement authorities to launch the SOS feature for the first time in Hyderabad in July 2022. These features facilitate direct communication between riders, drivers, and police authorities in case of emergencies.”
Another part of Uber’s bid to make rides safer is its complimentary insurance policy. In case anything happens to the rider or driver if the ride meets with an accident, Uber provides insurance coverage of 5 lakh. Though Uber didn’t share many details about the procedure for availing the insurance, the policy is there. “Uber has the insurance policy for free, and we do not charge anything from the driver or rider for this. The insurance money is not even a part of the fare charges, unlike what airlines and other companies often include,” says Nair.