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Uber Can’t Find Its Way Around India

GPS roadblocks make rides longer.

Uber and Google Maps. That's supposed to be a dream team for commuters. A relatively cheap cab which gets you to your destination via the quickest route. But on the streets of Delhi, at least, that's not always the case. Especially when you need it the most.

The other day I was chatting with my Uber driver to find out how he liked his job. He liked it a lot, he said, until the technology that was supposed to help him out did the opposite. The previous day he got a ride request. It was from a location that was 23 kilometers (around 14 miles) away and would take him 51 minutes to get there. Obviously the driver declined. The problem was that this happened to him all day long and he had to constantly turn down rides—and income. He blamed it on the rains.

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It was the tail end of the monsoon season here and his guess was that the GPS that is supposed to track his location and match it to the nearest commuter was off its game.

What was likely a technical snafu had become his problem because, in theory, Uber drivers are not supposed to decline rides and if they decline one too many in a day, they may lose their bonus for that day. My driver had already received a text alert from Uber that he had canceled too many rides that day and he was worried Uber might cut some 4,000 rupees (around $60) from his earnings (apart from his lost revenue from the missed rides), a decent chunk of change in this part of the world where according to a 2011 World Bank estimate at least 276 million people lived below $1.25 a day,

But there was nothing he could do. "I can't call anyone in the company," he told me. "There's a customer care number but they don't understand my problem, they can't understand how the app is picking up rides that far away. Plus, they're only available 9am to 5pm. What do I do the rest of the time?"

Uber defended its availability to drivers and said phone support for drivers is available from 8AM to 8PM on all seven days of the week and in more than seven languages.

But one can't even always blame it on the rain.

I recently took an Uber to a concert. When I got into the cab I separately opened up Google Maps on my phone to check what was the quickest route to my destination. The app showed me 5.2 kilometers (around 3.2 miles) and 18 mins away. As the driver set out he took what I thought was a wrong turn. But he was merely following the directions showing up on his smartphone (and one that used Google Maps). When I voiced my concern, he confidently told me that if I had entered the destination in the Uber app, it would get me there and I had nothing to worry about. Since I didn't know that area too well, I thought it was best to rely on the technology.

Wrong. Nearly 20 mins later it brought me to an abandoned parking lot in the opposite direction from where I had to be. I "updated" the location in my Uber app and finally got there almost half an hour later. The driver was sheepish and apologetic but I couldn't truly blame him.

Uber later told me that it's "always striving to improve the rider-driver experience in India including operations of the app in poor network conditions."

I just now know to take this smart technology with a grain of salt and listen to my own gut, instead.