After a young woman in New Delhi accused her Uber driver of sexual assault last week, passenger safety offered by taxi companies in India has come under close scrutiny—especially the tracking mechanism used by these firms to see where their vehicles and customers are.
Quartz spoke to Olacabs, Meru and TaxiForSure to understand the tracking mechanism deployed by them. These three companies together have a 90% market share, with Olacabs alone controlling 60% of the market.
The popularity of the San Francisco-based cab booking company grew quickly in urban India thanks to its hassle-free service and polite drivers. However, the alleged rape by one of its drivers has raised some serious questions.
An Uber driver told Quartz he simply has to switch off the cellphone, provided by the company, to make himself untraceable. And the 32-year-old Uber driver who is accused in the Delhi incident had done precisely this, the police said.
“As long as the device (iPhone) is on, the company knows everything about its drivers,” said an uberX driver in New Delhi, requesting anonymity. “If I am waiting at a particular spot, even if it is for a minute, the company would know that. The only way I can stop Uber from tracking me is when I switch off the phone.”
Uber cabs do not have a GPS tracking system installed in it, so it’s only the iPhone that can be used to track the cars.
So far, the Olacabs tracking mechanism is similar to Uber’s. ”All cabs have a smartphone device, which helps us in tracking cabs in real-time as well as processing booking requests from customers,” said Anand Subramanian, a spokesperson for Olacabs.
“In the light of the recent incident in Delhi, we are working on creating an additional layer of GPS tracking in all cabs on the platform,” Subramanian added, without providing details on the new system. Currently, there is no separate GPS device installed in the car except the driver’s smartphone.
Additionally, Olacabs allows its passengers to share their real-time information of their rides with anyone by sharing a link that tracks the cab on a map.
While Olacabs, Uber and TaxiForSure are taxi aggregators, Meru is a radio cab company. It started out by owning its own fleet of cars but changed its strategy. Now, over 50% of its cars are owned by the drivers, not Meru itself.
The company has GPS in their cars to track the location and to ensure that drivers aren’t speeding. And like Olacabs, Meru too allows its passengers to share their ride information with a person of their choice.
“Clients can register for a trip tracker facility,” said Siddhartha Pahwa, CEO of Meru Cabs. “This provides the passengers trip details to a trusted person assigned by the passenger.”
Information about the ride is sent to the trusted person every 15 minutes, Pahwa said.
Meru’s mobile app also has an emergency feature. “It is a small button that can be pressed by the passenger. In 10 seconds, an emergency alarm will be triggered to two trusted people of passenger showing the location of the passenger,” explained Pahwa.
“We give devices to all our drivers that can only run our app. These devices help us track the location of each of our drivers real-time,” a spokesperson for TaxiForSure told Quartz.
“We know when they are logged-in and are plying on the road and even when they are off-duty and where they are parked,” the spokesperson added.
The cab service also has “Track a Taxi” feature that allows passengers to share a link tracking movement of the cab, with anyone via phone texts.