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It almost seems like Uber’s risk management department read my previous article about the missing safety arrangements for travelers using the controversial transportation service. That’s why I was more than surprised when I checked my Twitter timeline last week and saw the big news: Uber is launching two new security features, the “panic button” and the “safety net”, which allow riders to immediately call for help and inform up to five people in case of an emergency. And just when I was about to mentally congratulate Uber on finally taking responsibility for the safety of their customers, it hit me. The new security features are only going to be available in India at this time.
Please note that we are not talking about a physical panic button in each driver’s car which would require personnel for the installation and maintenance (and therefore cause higher costs). We are talking about the implementation of two simple app features, which could easily be made accessible to all other Uber customers around the world, too. I wanted to know if Uber really wasn’t going to enable the helpful security features for everyone, so I got in touch with the customer support to clarify the situation. The answer I got was as plain as it could be. “Happy to help”, Dan from Uber assured me. “This service is currently only available in India and there is currently no ETA as to if or when this will be available in other countries.” I get it: Of course you don’t walk blindfolded in a worldwide roll-out and make people aware a danger they haven’t even realized yet. And, of course you chose one region, experience there, learn and improve. But then at least educate your customer service people - typical growth problem of a start-up.
Taking the first step
When the in-app panic button is pressed, a local incident response team will receive a notification and can inform the police in an emergency. If the new features can convince customers (and maybe even new investors), it is probably only a matter of time before Uber will launch them in other countries, too. The transportation service has been standing under a lot of pressure lately and had to come up with a good idea to gain the trust of existing and potential customers back. Angry demonstrators and Indian prosecutors have been breathing down Uber’s neck for quite a while now and it was time for them to step the game up. Other companies like AsterRIDE and Shuddle have already added panic buttons and passenger tracking to their apps. They provide all-female driver teams and have heightened driver background checks to prevent violent incidents. Phillip Cardenas, Uber’s head of global safety, knows that he still has “more work to do” when it comes to safety. The company has plans to improve its safety programs this year and I wonder what their next steps are going to be.
As for the 26-year-old woman who was allegedly raped in India: She said that a 24-hour customer support hotline and in-car cameras could be a big step in the right direction. Uber doesn’t want physical panic buttons in drivers’ cars, and cameras are only good if they can’t get disabled (or erased) and either transmit a continuous footage to a secure location which can be analyzed after the fact (unrealistic for most home camera systems and definitely no option for a moving vehicle) or records only the relevant scene. For the latter, the question becomes what triggers a recording event - a scream for “help”? I kind of agree that security features need to be built into the app to avoid wear and tear and tampering, but maybe there is more. How about automatic camera and/or voice recording activation along with a distress call in case of a scream on both apps - driver and passenger? Thoughts? Will such recording hold in court?
Uber wants to make it to the top
However, the security updates in India are only a small piece of the puzzle. Uber is one of the most successful start-ups and seems to be willing to master every crisis. If the new features attract wide interest and really help customers in emergency cases, I’m sure the company will take it to the next level and create a promising safety program which will benefit Uber and its customers all over the world and thus come out of this crisis stronger than before. One must not forget to compare apples and apples. While taxi companies may (still) be ahead with mandatory background checks, Uber will soon be ahead with using technology to create safety. So far I have not seen any taxi with a panic button or camera. I’m sure, with Uber, soon you will see a picture of the driver along with his safety record and star rating reviews from other passengers similar to how products are positioned on Amazon. Then you can select your driver along with other features such as the vehicle and amenities. The only people who are probably not quite amused about the changes are regular taxi drivers. Once again the market will regulate itself - step up your game cab drivers …