Interview: Sanil Bhatia, Uber

‘We have launched key safety initiatives’

Print edition : July 24, 2015

Sanil Bhatia, general manager, Uber, Pune. Photo: Special Arrangement

Interview with Sanil Bhatia, general manager, Uber, Pune.

SANIL BHATIA, general manager for Uber in Pune, spoke to Frontline about the company, its plans and the controversies. Excerpts:

The Delhi government has banned app-based taxi services. What are you doing about it?

We are working closely with the authorities in Delhi towards a long-term solution that puts the safety and interests of riders and drivers first.

Has Uber changed its modus operandi after the December incident in Delhi?

Safety of riders and drivers has always been the number 1 priority at Uber. We are deeply committed to constantly innovating, developing and implementing new solutions that enhance the level of safety for our community in India and around the world. Since we launched in India in 2013, we have partnered exclusively with commercially licensed drivers who already have gone through a number of verifications and are licensed by the government to provide rides.

Over the past few months, we have launched a number of key safety initiatives in India. Those include re-verification of all driver partners with the police, additional background screening with First Advantage [a background screening firm], and the establishment of a dedicated local incident response team to handle critical situations. We also announced upgraded technology for Uber India, like sending status that builds on and replaces “Share my ETA” [expected time of arrival], and an SOS button directly in-app so riders can immediately contact local authorities in the rare event of an emergency.

We will roll out additional safety features in other cities and countries in the coming months to make sure that the one million plus trips a day provide a safe option in every Uber city.

Please explain the business model of Uber.

Uber is a smartphone app that simply connects licensed drivers with people who need a ride. From our founding in 2009, we are now present in 313 cities across 58 countries, and growing every day.

For riders, Uber connects users with transportation on demand, wherever and whenever they choose, at the touch of a button. The seamless experience means never having to worry about finding a ride or having cash.

For drivers, Uber’s lead generation software facilitates a powerful entrepreneurship opportunity. Drivers make far more, and with greater flexibility, than they would with any other option available to them. For cities, Uber means faster economic development, more jobs, and significant economic output.

Tell us a little about the drivers and the entrepreneurship model.

At the core of Uber is entrepreneurship. Working with Uber, everyone from an employee like me to a driver-partner is given complete ownership and autonomy over their work.

In the case of driver-partners, we train them on the technological aspects of the Uber app and the smartphone, along with soft skills. The driver-partners can then use Uber’s technology to earn a living as per their own preferences. They get the flexibility and the freedom to operate, thus putting the onus on them for their own business. Because of this kind of a business model, we have seen not just a lot of drivers who used to work for someone else purchase their own cars through our vehicle-financing programme, but also students and IT professionals choosing to become a driver-partner with Uber because of the earning opportunities and the flexibility our platform provides.

Akash Tambde, UberX driver-partner, is studying journalism in Pune and is funding his education as well as supporting his family through earnings with Uber. Additionally, he is also actively fighting against unwarranted toll being charged at certain locations in Pune. He has filed an RTI [right to information] query. He has been a partner driver with Uber for more than nine months and started with a single car, but now he owns a couple of cars and runs them with his drivers. He loves the flexibility and ownership that comes with working on the Uber platform. This not only helps him take time off when he has examinations but instils pride in him since he is his own boss.

Arun Bangar, another Uber driver-partner, has served in the Army for 26 years and has been driving on the Uber platform for more than 10 months. Post-retirement, he worked for a corporate house but got no satisfaction or sense of ownership out of it. Arun, who started with a small car, today drives his own Innova and has been able to provide quality education to his children. One of his sons is a BAMS [Bachelor of Ayurveda, Medicine and Surgery] doctor, another a CA student, and his daughter is an assistant engineer with the electricity board. Aziz Sayed, UberX driver-partner, owns a furnishing shop and after he heard of Uber, decided to pick up driving part time. He used to run his shop by the day and drive the car after the close of business hours. Today, he has a set of drivers running his car. Partnering with Uber has complemented his business skills and has made him more enterprising because of the volume of customer touch points he has every day.

How many drivers are there in India and what are their earnings?

Leveraging the platform Uber provides, we help tens of thousands of drivers meet their economic and social needs. Partnering with Uber has been a transformational experience for a lot of these driver-partners. Amol Navgire, an Uber SUV driver-partner, who didn’t get to spend time with his newborn daughter owing to daily trips to cities outside Pune, is happily leveraging the flexibility Uber offers to spend quality time with his family.

We love to empower our driver-partners to take their own business decisions and maximise their earnings through their own expertise and knowledge of the city. The better a driver-partner understands the Uber app and the commuting needs of the city, the more trips she/he makes and thus maximises the earnings.

Over the past few months, we have worked hard to create avenues through which more and more drivers are encouraged to join Uber. Our vehicle-financing programme, through which we have created an ecosystem of car manufacturers, dealerships and financiers, is further helping make the dreams of these budding entrepreneurs a reality much faster.

A lot of the driver-partners come from an experienced background of driving and they love the earning potential, flexibility and ownership that Uber offers. We are increasingly seeing an emerging trend where a lot of professionals and students are becoming driver-partners. To further show our commitment to inclusive entrepreneurship, we have partnered with iCare Life to train, certify and create hundreds of jobs for women in India on the Uber platform in 2015. This is just a small step in our commitment to create 50,000 jobs for women as partner drivers on the Uber platform in India by 2020.

What is the staff strength of Uber India?

We are an international organisation with hyperlocal teams that understand the nuances of their city. The strength of our employee base in India is 100+ and growing rapidly.

What are your expansion plans?

Uber is seeing a tremendous response from consumers in India which reflects in our solid growth of 40 per cent month-on-month. We are currently present in 11 cities in India: Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Chandigarh, Chennai, Hyderabad, Jaipur, Kochi, Kolkata, Mumbai, New Delhi and Pune. We continue to strengthen our operations in each of these existing cities. Our second phase of expansion, which we will begin soon, will see Uber entering many more tier-2 and tier-3 cities across the country.

What would you say to drivers of traditional services striking against Uber?

More choice in a city’s transportation ecosystem is better for everyone, including riders and drivers. In fact, in cities around the world, former taxi drivers are choosing the Uber platform for greater economic opportunity and flexibility. Uber’s technology offers consumers more choices, allows drivers to make more money, and reduces congestion [on the roads] by encouraging people to leave their cars at home.