NEW DELHI — Auto rickshaws are the mangy donkeys of Delhi transport, glorified golf carts that are a cheaper open-air alternative to taxis, and whose drivers enthusiastically embrace Delhi’s perpetual, honking traffic chaos.
Some of the green-and-yellow “autos” come equipped with speakers in the back that blare Bollywood hits. Many drivers will allow more than the legal maximum of three riders, leaving some passengers clinging to the sides of the vehicles. Few use their meters without a fight.
Now Uber, the app-based car service that made its name matching technology with luxury, is trying to expand its ultramodern business model from cars to Delhi’s auto rickshaws, which are the definition of retrograde.
“Autos are pretty much the lifeline of Delhi,” said Gagan Bhatia, the general manager of Uber Delhi. “The product was always there, we are just making it more convenient and more Uber.”
Map | New Delhi
“More Uber” in this case means making do with what exists. Auto rickshaws are a far cry from the Cadillac Escalades and Lincoln Town Cars used to ferry professionals in San Francisco and New York when the company started out. The three-wheeled vehicles are light on shock absorption to cushion teeth-clattering rides over potholed streets. And seatbelts are not an option, leaving riders gripping their seats for security.
But the company is trying, at least, for a new emphasis on niceties that have rarely been part of the auto rickshaw experience.
“They tell us to say ‘namaste,’ “ a common Indian greeting, said Baljeet Kumar, 35, a driver or “autowallah” who recently sat through an hourlong Uber training course.
Until now, his job demands had less to do with polite chitchat than with the cunning it takes to navigate streets filled not only with cars and buses, but also cows, stray dogs and peddlers who rush up to vehicles caught in traffic to thrust their wares at riders.
Uber encourages drivers to use their meters, and pays its drivers an additional 40 rupees, or just over 60 cents, per ride on top of the fare, according to drivers. It also encourages drivers to live by the three-rider limit and to use GPS on the smartphones it provides rather than the usual method of finding directions to an unknown address — shouting to passers-by to see if they know the way.
Still, the drive with Mr. Kumar was hardly free of certain inconveniences that typify an April afternoon auto ride in Delhi: the oppressive heat, made worse by occasional gusts of rancid-smelling air, and the nuisance of a mattress-laden wagon attached to a bicycle inching its way down the road.
For Uber, the new service, which started this month, is part of an effort to expand quickly in a country that it says is already its second largest market, but where it faces stiff competition. Ola, an app-based competitor that operates in 100 Indian cities to Uber’s 11, offered auto rickshaw rides months ago.
Uber is also fighting its way back from a public relations disaster. Last year, a passenger in Delhi alleged that her Uber driver raped her, and the company faced criticism for its licensing and screening procedures. The city promptly banned app-based taxi services, but Uber has continued to operate by offering rides in Delhi without taking a commission, until what they describe as the regulatory ambiguity is resolved.
Even apart from that episode, the marriage of Uber and auto rickshaw has had its share of problems.
Mr. Kumar said that most of the drivers in his training class of 60 had no idea how to use the app on the Samsung smartphones they were given.
“It’s all in English and many of them are illiterate,” he said. Ola has its driver interface in Hindi and other regional languages.
Plus, many auto drivers he knows are reluctant to sign up, wondering how Uber makes money.
“A lot of them are innocent, and they are scared,” he said. They wonder if Uber will one day take their vehicles, he said. “They are perplexed. Where is Uber getting their earnings from?”
For the moment, the company is not making money from the auto rickshaws in Delhi, putting its emphasis for now on signing up new drivers.
Mr. Bhatia would not divulge the number of auto rickshaws that have joined the service, other than to say “not enough.” Indeed, several recent attempts to book Uber autos were unsuccessful because there were none available in the area.
Pawan Kumar, 30, who has signed on as a driver with Uber, said so far he books just two or three passengers a day through the app, compared with about 15 a day from the road and up to 10 from Ola. On a ride last week, he navigated using his smartphone from Uber, which he mounted just above a bronze miniature of the Hindu monkey god Hanuman.
Despite its difficulties, Uber has had some successes. On three recent auto rickshaw rides booked through Uber, the drivers did not attempt the normal litany of reasons for not turning on their meters (“Madam, there’s lot of traffic.” Or, “Madam, it’s Sunday.” Or, “I won’t find a passenger at the other end of the ride.”)
Instead, they started the ride by quietly clicking on their meters, then puttered into traffic.
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