‘Driverless cars won’t arrive for another ten years’

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March 15, 2016 12:44 AM

The world's most valued start-up Uber Technologies is not just an on-demand taxi hailing app, but is aiming to make people their own boss, and help them to do what they want through a single click.

The world’s most valued start-up Uber Technologies is not just an on-demand taxi hailing app, but is aiming to make people their own boss, and help them to do what they want through a single click. Thuan Pham, chief technology officer at Uber Technologies spoke to FE’s R Jai Krishna about the company’s success in resolving a India-specific problem and replicating the solution across the world, mentoring start-ups, newer upcoming services and its plans on driverless car challenging Google, one of its investors. Excerpts:

How significant is India in Uber’s scheme of things?

I can share with you regions. China is massive and China is big, China is the largest. The next is North America, and then the rest of the world combined. In the rest of the world, India is going to be massive part of the rest of the world for us. Right now we are thinking of these three major regions.

What are your biggest challenge in India, and have you resolved it? Have you replicated elsewhere?

The biggest challenge we want to solve is, how do we get our service in every major city. How do we move tens and millions of people in India everyday. And doing it with all the technology and strain, like congestion and traffic patterns and cultures and some drivers are not quite literate…solving our service and make it reachable to tens of millions of people is by far going to be the bigger challenge. The technical challenge is in the payments side. We pioneered cash payments for the India market, that was the first time that we ever did cash payments. It’s turning out to be an amazing decision and innovation and we totally leveraged this capability elsewhere in the world.

What is the rationale behind Uber mentoring start-ups in India, are you trying to integrate your APIs? Are you looking to stick to only transportation?

There are multiple things. Uber itself as a service is a platform, for people to basically be their own boss on the platform. Every man and woman who provides service works for thyself, or they may even have a driver working for them. So that is a platform for people to basically make a living. At the same time, technologically, we are also platform, because we also allow our API to be callable and integrate into other people’s apps as well. On Facebook messenger, right now, you can use a command and get Uber. There might be other merchant’s app too. Transportation is our core mission. We basically move things around with ease.

What is your view on driverless cars? Google, one of your investors, is also working on driverless cars. Where does Uber see the market moving toward.

We are going to be competing with that, for sure. I think when Google invested in us we didn’t know or we didn’t really work on driverless car. It is not that they have a driverless car, it is about they have a driverless car and they have an intention to roll out just like us, and dispatch driverless cars. That becomes a challenge. If Google was to build a driverless car, and remain absolutely neutral, and allow us to integrate Uber technology with those who purchase the driverless cars, that’s fine, we don’t have any problem at all. We don’t want a world where the only manufacturer of driverless car build their own dispatch system.

We are building our own system. It will be a long transition, It will be a long, multi-year long transition. If the future like that arrives and it’s inevitable, if we don’t do it, somebody else will. My personal guess is that it won’t arrive for another ten years or so…look at the streets right now, can anyone of us imagine that driverless car can be driving in Delhi, or Bangalore, I don’t think so. It’ll be a long time. It will be like any other technology or industrial transformation that happened in the past.

Will the new research centre in Bangalore work on the driverless car project?

No, not on driverless car. In fact, driverless car is done in a very specific location in the US, most of us in core engineering don’t even get to that. We treat it as a very separate business, like an investment, like a futuristic investment, way out there. If we don’t have that, and if we enter the world which manufactures driverless cars and only dispatches their own cars. What we do, we don’t have a business.

What features can a Uber user expect in the next version of the app?

You can expect us to move more things in our platform. We have already started experimenting with Uber Eats, think we are going to see Uber Eats, getting food to people on-demand. If we get it right, there is no reason why we can’t bring it to the world. Anything that makes sense for a city, we will offer that eventually.

Do we expect Uber Eats or any other services in India?

We need to know it works really well. Any product we launch including the different ride sharing market, we have to experiment for some place first. For example, Uber Commute was invented in one city in China first, and now we are taking that and experimenting with more cities like Delhi and Bangalore. Uber Commute is pairing up travellers who travel in the same direction, for example from home to office. In this you have your own car and you go to work, and pick up another passenger.

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