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Engine roaring.
THAT'S THE DRIVEWAY

Having quit food-delivery, Uber is likely to turn all its might against Ola

Ananya Bhattacharya
By Ananya Bhattacharya

Tech reporter

The bullet Ola dodged in food-delivery could be coming at it in ride-hailing.

Uber and Ola have been neck-and-neck in India’s $30 billion ride-hailing sector for years now. Together, the two facilitate 3.65 million rides daily in the country.

Now, though, the rivalry might intensify.

On Jan. 22, Uber sold its food delivery business in India to Zomato in a $350 million all-stock deal. The company said it would now focus all its attention on its core business. “India remains an exceptionally important market to Uber and we will continue to invest in growing our local rides business, which is already the clear category leader,” CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said in the press release.

Even as Ola leads on several fronts in India’s taxi wars, including the number of app installs and the number of cities it operates in, the Bengaluru-based company now potentially faces renewed vigour on Uber’s part.

Some metrics already put the San Francisco-based firm on top. For instance, by the end of 2019, it had the highest overall market share in India, research from data intelligence platform Vumonic show.

“Uber and Ola are quite close with spends and hours, so consumers more or less see their offerings as the same, and make a price decision when they choose which player to use,” Vumonic co-founder Gabriel Appleton said.

Uber overtaking

With an electric vehicle’s (EV) business, a digital wallet, and various food brands, Ola has a lot on its platter. Uber’s one-track approach—now with UberEATS gone—can be a formidable rival, experts say.

“Uber already has an ongoing expansion plan of spreading from just 50 India cities to about 200 cities, which will include its ventures of tapping the tier-II and tier-III cities,” said Sukriti Seth, consultant at Noida-based TechSci Research. “This will stiffen the competition.”

Beyond cabs, Uber is also focusing on growing its bike and auto segments. In capital city New Delhi, Uber lists metro and buses on its app, too. Following Ola’s move to spin off its EV arm in March 2019, its American rival partnered with Sun Mobility to offer e-rickshaws. And in December, Mahindra and Uber teamed up to put 50 electric cabs on the road.

Uber is also trying to bolster safety features by introducing 4-digit pins for riders—Ola launched a similar one-time password feature three years ago—and by adding a ride-check service wherein Uber calls both the rider and the driver in the event of a long, unexpected stop or other irregularities.

Rerouting

Uber’s desperation to win India may intensify now given that it is struggling in several other markets.

For starters, it was ousted from China by market leader Didi Chuxing back in 2016. In the UK, it is barely keeping its licence to operate in London and likely owes the country a big tax bill.

In the US, Seattle approved new fees on rides and a to-be-determined minimum wage for drivers. Chicago has passed a congestion tax on ride-hail services that adds up to $3 to private rides during peak hours. New Jersey recently hit the company with a $640 million bill for misclassifying drivers as independent contractors. In California, the jury is still out on whether its drivers are employees or contractors.

Meanwhile, its stock market debut was disastrous—Uber’s share price is still down nearly 10% since its initial public offering.

“Uber is also confronting the responsibilities that come with being a publicly-listed company,” Quartz India desk editor Pramod Mathew said in a comment on the Zomato-Uber Eats deal story. “There will be pressure from shareholders to pursue profitability.”

In this context, selling off UberEATS in India might just have taken some weight off its shoulders.