Uber Wants to Rule the World. First It Must Conquer India.

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Uber had a grander goal. Mr. Kalanick has long said Uber’s primary competition is private car ownership; if Uber can give you a cheap ride instantly, it could conceivably beat the cost and associated hassles of owning your own vehicle. In developed countries like the United States, car ownership is entrenched, but not in India. There was a chance, then, for ride-hailing companies to vault over private car ownership entirely.

“You can’t have every resident of Delhi driving a car — that just wouldn’t work,” Mr. Kalanick said. “They just don’t have the infrastructure to support it, so why build it out? So that will be a big deal.”

The Long Hail

The leapfrogging of private car ownership remains far off. At this point, Uber has 200,400 active drivers on its platform in India. Ola said it has 640,000. Those numbers sound large, until you consider that nearly 400 million people live in India’s cities.

Still, citizens of a certain professional class — tech workers, frequent travelers — said Uber and Ola had become part of the fabric of Indian urban life.

Before Uber, “folks were rather locked up at home,” said Christian Freese, the general manager for Uber’s Bangalore office, where the company has placed its only dedicated engineering center outside of San Francisco. “Now you can see people go out, especially on the weekend. You just press a button and the car is there.”

Well, sometimes. Often in India, you open the Uber app, press a button, and then — nothing. The app selects a driver, but the driver does nothing. His car’s icon just sits there, unmoving.

This is something of a cultural mystery. “Drivers in India take forever to start, and we are still trying to figure out why,” said Apurva Dalal, Uber’s head of engineering in Bangalore. “We’ve tried to do research on it, but we don’t know why it happens.”


Ashwini, an Uber driver in Bangalore, with her father, who drives a motorized rickshaw, a popular form of transportation. Credit Atul Loke for The New York Times

One reason may be the drivers: Many are unaccustomed to smartphones and may not trust the digital notification that comes in over the app. Most Uber rides in India involve riders phoning drivers to confirm that the ride is for real.

On top of that, Uber’s digital maps sometimes don’t match India’s ever-shifting road patterns, so riders may have to tell drivers how to find them.

For instance, just outside one of Uber’s offices in Bangalore, two roads meet in a Y-shaped junction. The junction is often snarled with traffic, so in January, someone — either a local authority or a concerned citizen, it’s not clear — placed a makeshift concrete median in the road to better manage the flow. A two-way street was turned into two one-way streets, but because the Uber app’s map didn’t know about the change, Uber’s cars entering the area suffered long delays, for several days.

“When we look at the average time to begin a trip — from the time a driver accepts a trip to when he picks up the rider and starts the trip — that is the highest in the world for Uber here in India,” said Mr. Jain, the president of Uber India. “So our task is, how do you reduce that time?”

About half the Uber cars I tried in Bangalore were pleasant, and seemed in good physical and mechanical order. Others had no seatbelts, or lacked air-conditioning.

The drivers were uniformly friendly, if sometimes unschooled in the ways of customer service. On a trip from the airport, one driver suddenly pulled off the road without a word. I panicked until I saw he was just heading for a gas station.

If I had feared trouble, I could have pressed the in-app panic button, a feature that alerts law enforcement to your location. Both Uber and Ola added the button to their apps in 2015, prompted by a horrific 2014 case in which an Uber driver sexually assaulted a passenger; the driver was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.


New drivers learn how to use the Uber app. Many recruits to Uber’s driver pool have never used a smartphone. Credit Atul Loke for The New York Times

Compared to other options available to most Indian riders, Ola and Uber represent an improvement in access to transportation, and a steep drop in price. In Bangalore, a 22-mile Uber ride that lasted nearly an hour cost me 548 rupees, or about $8.50. That was on UberX, the company’s middle-tier service; with UberGo or OlaMicro, which use smaller cars, it might have been a dollar or two cheaper. A taxi taking the same route might have cost more than $10.

At these prices, Ola and Uber are becoming everyday options for India’s rising middle class.

Drive for Us

Uber has made several adjustments to its practices to get along in India.

Cash is king here because credit cards and other digital payment systems aren’t widely used. It was an issue for Uber’s just-get-out-of-the-car-when-you’re-done payment method. So in 2015, in a move that Mr. Kalanick said took him “a little time” to get used to, Uber began accepting cash payments for the first time in the city of Hyderabad. Soon it started accepting cash across India, as well as in Southeast Asia and South America.

By last fall, when the Indian government began a plan to cut down on the use of cash in the economy, about 80 percent of Uber’s Indian rides were paid for in cash.

An even bigger change came in how it recruits drivers. In the United States, so-called sharing economy companies depend on untapped labor and capital: You’ve got a decent car, a phone, and you need money? Why not spend your weekends driving for Uber?

But the dynamics of untapped supply don’t line up in the same way in India. Lots of people need work, but relatively few have cars or know how to drive. Drivers must also secure a commercial driver’s license and special registration status for their cars.

Most of Uber and Ola’s losses in India stem from their vast operations used to attract drivers — for example, the network of UberDost contractors. Both companies have also set up leasing deals with banks and car manufacturers to get special terms for drivers in need of vehicles.

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