Uber Is In Sri Lanka And It Wants You to Stop Driving…

…and not buy that second car

Uber – the pioneering ride hailing app in the world – is still in its “early days” in Sri Lanka, having launched – patented surge pricing and all – on 18 December with UberX (think Priuses and Allions). It has also added UberGo (Maruti-type cars) and UberCHOPPER (helicopter rides), payments are still cashless, and Uber keeps a 20% commission on fares. Uber General Manager for South and West India Bhavik Rathod (pictured) was in Sri Lanka recently for a brief visit and talked about taking on car culture and making transportation as reliable as running water.

What is Uber doing in Sri Lanka, which is such a small market? 

I don’t think this is a small market; it’s a pretty big market. Add up the number of trishaws, cabs and private cars moving from point to point in the city, it’s about a million and a half. There are easily about a million trips happening a day.

Our competition is just not other ride operators or other modes of public transport, but private car ownership. If I can stop you from buying a car tomorrow or taking your car from point A to B, you’ll transition to Uber. If I can make Uber cheaper than owning a car, why wouldn’t you. What we’ve seen all over the world, in the many cities that we’re in already, is a decline in second car ownership. The first car has aspirational value. In some cities, we’ve seen a decline in first car sales as well. In many countries, people aspire to their first car; they buy that, but when they think of buying a second car, they reconsider when there is Uber, which is much cheaper. They think, ‘if I buy a car, I have to pay for my loan, parking, chauffeur, insurance and gas’.

As a financial opportunity, Colombo is growing and drawing a lot of interest. The kind of vibrancy we’re seeing in Colombo is great, very promising. If we start adding up all these trips that happen in the city, including bus travel, train travel and private car ownership, then there is enough opportunity there for us to go after.

How has the global Uber model been tweaked for Sri Lanka? 

The platform is the same, but the way we position it is different, like the cars for example. In Sri Lanka, UberX is a Prius, in India it’s a Maruti and in South Korea it’s like a Mercedes. The car type varies depending on what’s available in the city and the price point users can pay for that service.

How would you define success for Uber in Sri Lanka? 

Besides adoption, which is measured by growth in the number of users, drivers and trips, for me, it is having made a significant impact in the behavior of the user. That is, changing this person who is so used to taking his own car to use Uber. We’ve already had people write to us on Twitter that they’re doing this, like ‘my driver quit and I’ve now switched to using Uber to get around’.

The entire industry is nascent. But what is sure is that we are going to be the front runners as we leverage global knowledge in this city.

What is Uber’s position in the local ride hailing market? 

We don’t share numbers. But what I can tell you is that, when we started, the average time to get a car was 13 minutes, it is now seven minutes and I’m confident that it will soon be under five minutes. Even in Bangalore, which is way more congested than Colombo, it is three minutes or less. So Colombo is going to be magical.

Uber is infamous for its aggressive marketing tactics, to the extent of having drivers call and cancel rides on rivals. Why have we not seen this in Sri Lanka or are we just not aware? 

The business is hyperlocal, so we’re not going to push a global mandate or one-sizefits-all into every city we’re in. We can’t do that. For us, that is the backbone and guide to how we’re going to conduct the business here.

Also, regulations here are very progressive. The government is willing to accept change and embrace new technology that will positively affect the lives of its citizens. One of the core philosophies of Uber is celebrating cities, that is discovering what we can do to ensure that the experience of living in a city is elevated. When a government embraces that and when a city embraces that, there is no controversy.

Certainly regulations have been favorable, but what about instances like when Uber drivers used to continuously call and cancel rides on rival services Lyft and GetTaxi? 

I don’t think we do that anywhere. I’m not too involved in what the US team does. We’re aggressive in solving problems in the city. We can get you a chopper in 10 minutes, democratizing the entire experience of flying in a chopper.

In respect of how I define aggressive, has Uber decided as an organization to not be aggressive, or does it simply view this as not being suitable for this region? 

I think you have to figure out what the right answer is for the respective city. Again I’m not very familiar with the background information on those specific instances you’re talking about, but I don’t think we’ve done it anywhere.

What is the typical profile of an Uber driver in Sri Lanka? 

It’s a wide range. We’ve got ex-cops, former call center professionals, street vendors, traditional operators, ex-military guys, university students and even one woman driver.

How much does an Uber driver earn in Sri Lanka, on average? 

It can range widely because there are drivers who drive two hours a day, eight hours a day, one day a week or seven days a week. It could vary from as high as Rs50,000 – there have been instances of more – a week. It depends on how efficiently a driver uses the data provided to him.

There are even some university students who drive once or twice a week. Some target a certain amount of money a week and drive to get that.

Uber has had a number of issues regarding safety, including women who have been sexually assaulted in Uber cabs. How do you address this very prevalent issue in Sri Lanka? 

We do a police background check on all drivers. We take it very seriously, as it’s key for our business. We are consistently working on safety features that we can roll out. We’ve rolled out a few in India, and we’ll be looking at bringing them to Sri Lanka as well.

Uber considers its drivers independent contractors, however, it has faced a number of lawsuits – elsewhere in the world – for crime and accidents. Will Uber Sri Lanka be responsible for drivers’ misdeeds?

There have been unfortunate incidents that have happened. There are checks and balances that we have to put in place, but ultimately the society, police, insurance company, driver and rider all have to be part of the entire ecosystem, it can’t be just one person’s responsibility.

We recognize a collective responsibility. From our side, we have to make sure the checks and balances are there; from the driver’s side, he has to make sure the right documents are there; from the rider’s side, they need to make sure the driver matches his photograph on the app before they get into the car (there is also the option of sharing your ETA so another person can track you); and then there are other stakeholders who have to be a part of the resolution as well.

What is Uber’s future, and what are its challenges here? 

Providing transportation as reliable as running water. Like when you open a tap and know that water is going to come out, that’s how Uber should be – you open the app and know there’s a car for you.

That itself is a huge challenge and something we’re constantly working on. We are still very young, but that’s our future and our challenge.