This San Francisco-based company uses a mobile app to connect passengers with luxury cars for hire

When Uber started in San Francisco techies used it to reach client meetings. In New York, hipsters used it to go for swish dinners. In Chennai, so far, the luxury car service has been used by an aunty who needed a new pressure cooker from Rathna Stores; a grandmother who had to pay her gas bill; and a sweet old man who needed to get to the railway station. The team behind the app couldn’t be more proud. San Francisco-based, venture funded start-up company Uber uses a mobile application to connect passengers with luxury cars for hire. In simple terms, that means you press a button on your smart phone, and a Mercedes appears — hopefully — in six minutes. One week after the company’s secret launch in Chennai, I hear about this ‘posh-cab service’ from a friend and download the app on my phone. My Mercedes arrives in seven minutes, as promised. The roughly six kilometre ride, from Egmore to Alwarpet, costs a total of Rs. 174 (with a base fare of Rs. 50 plus Rs. 87 and Rs. 37 charged for time and distance). The city’s average taxi service, charges Rs. 150 as a base plus Rs. 22 per additional km. Which, of course, makes you wonder — what’s the catch?

So far, nothing terrible, though the company did get some bad press in New York for their surge pricing strategy that makes rides more expensive during periods of heavy demand. Uber’s also still coming to grips with Chennai’s traffic. My ride to the press conference at the Leela Palace ,to mark the service’s official launch in Chennai, arrives half an hour late despite the app confidently assuring me that a car is ‘6 minutes’ away. But then, it’s early days. Apparently the software gets smarter about ETAs (estimated time of arrival) as more rides are recorded. Also, I have to admit, any annoyance is dissipated when a BMW glides in.

Swathy Prithvi, international launcher, says the app began with a simple idea. “How cool would it be if you pushed a button and a car showed up?” As legend goes Uber Blog co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick started the service for just 100 of his friends. In a blog, he says StumbleUpon founder Garrett Camp suggested “splitting the costs of a driver, a Mercedes S Class, and a parking spot in a garage, so that I could use an iPhone app to get around San Francisco on-demand.” Gradually the concept morphed into Uber, which was launched in 2009. Today, the service is available in 72 cities, across 29 countries. Business Insider, in an article hailing ‘Sharp-Elbowed Salesman Travis Kalanick’ as ‘Silicon Valley’s Newest Star’ suggests the it now generates $20 million a week.

The Chennai team steadfastly refuses to divulge details about profits, investments or even the number of cars , as per company policy. However, head of EMEA (Europe, Midde East and Africa) & India Expansion Jambu Palaniappan, who’s just landed in Chennai after launches in Dublin, then Moscow, says the growth in India is one of the fastest he’s seen. “We launched in Bangalore at the end of October, then Delhi. We were in Hyderabad by December, then came into Chennai about a month ago. In a couple of days we do a soft launch in Mumbai. What’s surprised us is that each Indian city has grown faster than the one before.”

Discussing how the service is the least expensive in Chennai, compared to the rest of India, Swathy says “This is a city that values value.” Jambu adds, “We have found that people here value efficiency, reliability and safety above being flashy — so the cars we have here are mainly Corolla Altis and Innovas at competitive prices, with a sprinkling of Mercs, BMWs and the occasional Jaguar.” “Chennai’s been different because the adoption is wider,” says Swathy. “Normally, initial users tend to be founders of start-ups, people from IT, businessmen… In Chennai it’s a college girl uses it go partying, but it’s also maamis heading to T. Nagar to buy idli podi.” Visibly pleased at the city’s blasé acceptance of the service, she adds, “In the U.S., parents are using the app to send a car to pick their kids up from school and take them to soccer practice. A son in California can now arrange for a car to take his parents in Chennai to a concert when their driver doesn’t turn up. This is what it’s about: Making cities more accessible.”


A clash of Uber proportionsMay 11, 2014