5 Questions: From surge pricing to Uber Boats, what's next for the ride-hailing app?

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Is Uber taking over the world? A few days after a shack fire ripped through Alexandra, leaving thousands homeless in Alexandra, Johannesburg on Thursday, uberCOMMUNITY allowed people with the Uber app to have boxes of clothes and other donations to the victims collected by a driver, free of charge. 

The ride hailing app has also partnered with Discovery Health to administer flu injections to clients too busy to go to the doctor. And that’s only two of the products that the company offers in SA, with UberX, uberBlack, UberVan, uberAssist (CT and JHB), uberGO (PE), Uber Eats all on offer to 679 000 active (make use of the app at least once a month) riders and approximately 12 000 drivers.

Is the e-hailing app encroaching on all aspects of our lives, at the expense of public transport and other services or does it represent the future, offering a convenient "mobility platform" for every need? Fin24 spoke to Alon Lits, general manager of Uber sub-Saharan Africa in this edited interview.

Fin24: Will you consider following Egypt and offer Uber Bus to commuters in SA? 

Alon Lits (AL): We are categorically not competing with the minibus industry and we have no plans to compete with the minibus industry…we don’t want to be seen competing with the industry, and if we come in at all, it will be in partnership with existing players.

Fin24: People have complained about surge pricing during busy periods, will this be a factor on New Year’s Eve again?

AL: We’d rather give people that option to ride, and it reacts to demand and supply. Drivers also have a lot of things they could be doing on New Year’s Eve. They might want to spend time with their families and friends or do private trips. We need to make sure drivers are also incentivised to ride. Uber, however, refunded Global Citizen concert-goers last week for higher than usual fares as the company had agreed not to implement surge pricing. This mechanism was used to entice drivers to enter the highly congested area and take people home. 

Fin24: Has the hostile situation between Uber and  meter taxi drivers improved? 

AL: Yes, the company has engaged directly with meter taxi operators and law enforcement agencies. Several pick up zones with private security supplied by Uber have been provided in some cases. In October, we launched the safety toolkit which includes an in-app emergency button for riders ad drivers and allows them to connect directly to private emergency services and security response teams. 

Fin24: Uber was criticised for taking an arrogant approach under former CEO and co-founder Travis Kalanick, how do you interact with governments and regulators now? 

AL: We’ve matured as a company, I think Dara Khosrowshahi as our new CEO has made that really clear that we’re changing our approach and it’s not us vs the regulator. It’s us partnering with cities. Uber is a topical company. At one stage in 2017, we were the most covered company. There was negativity around the brand and we had to do introspection…there has been a turnaround. We don’t want to impose solutions on cities, we want to work with them. 

Fin24: What’s next for Uber in SA? 

AL: I share Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi’s vision for the company as a mobility platform. The app should support a multi-phase trip. I foresee being able to buy a Gautrain ticket while in an Uber to the station and then make use of an electric bike to reach your destination. We are also thinking of Uber Boat in other parts of sub-Saharan Africa. It’s very exciting. 

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