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Uber Is Launching a 'Panic Button' Feature in India

Part of the company's 2015 focus on increasing safety (especially women's), the app's panic button will notify police of any incident in a cab and allow riders to share their route and destination with up to five other individuals.

Road traffic in Gwalior, India. Photo via WikiCommons

Starting tomorrow, app-based car service Uber will launch "panic button" and "safety net" software features for riders in India. Part of the company's 2015 focus on increasing safety (especially women's) in their informal taxis, the app's panic button will notify police and local response teams of any incident in a cab, while the safety net will allow riders to share their route, destination, and ride information with up to five other individuals. Response to the move has been positive thus far, but it remains to be seen how effective this and other security measures will be at improving safety (and helping Uber avoid looming bans by local Indian governments).

Ostensibly major safety reforms have been in the works since at least November 2014. And you can probably read these features as an effort to bring Uber in-line with the background checks, emergency alerts, and passenger tracking features of other app-based rideshares like AsterRide and Shuddle.

Yet this Indian focus appears to be a reaction to the alleged December 2014 rape of a 26-year-old New Delhi girl by 32-year-old Uber driver Shiv Kumar Yadav, who police claim confessed to the crime, but who also continues to contest his case in court. His next hearing is tomorrow, the same day the panic button launches. The case and its coverage prompted significant backlash against Uber, calling for better regulation of its drivers and higher safety standards in its cars.

Days after the case broke, India's Home Ministry recommended that all states ban the app, which Hyderabad, New Delhi, and the entire state of Karnataka did. New Delhi officials indicated that in order to return Uber would need to register as and act like an official taxi, meaning they would need to use clean fuels and install tracking devices and emergency buttons. Then in January the (unnamed) victim in the rape case pushed for the installation of in-car cameras and creation of a 24-hour customer-support hotline to aid those having trouble with Uber drivers.

Although Uber proper is still officially banned in New Delhi, the company returned under the gibberish name of a subsidiary, Resource Experts India Private Limited, in late-January as a regularly licensed taxi service. Alongside their resumed service, they announced that they'd installed new security protocols and would run extensive background checks on their drivers (they used to require only a driver's license, proof of insurance, and taxi driving permit in India, which might have led them to miss Yadav's previous detention on suspicion of raping a taxi passenger several years earlier) before they could get back on the streets.

Yet despite these new procedures, the state of Maharashtra (home to two major Uber-using cities, Mumbai and Pune) was apparently still considering a ban at the start of the month. The local Transportation Department last week allowed Uber and other app-based rideshares 15 days to put together a comprehensive list of new safety measures they could offer to sway officials.

It's unclear whether Maharashtra or New Delhi will be satisfied with the in-app panic buttons and safety nets, especially given their previous demands for physical, in-car buttons and safety numbers. These assets would be useful for someone, say, whose phone ran out of credit, juice, or signal mid-ride. But according to Uber, these demands are impractical for a type of service such as theirs, which doesn't control the cars of their private contractor drivers.

"Imagine you enter the vehicle of a driver who works on four [rideshare] platforms," Uber Mumbai General Manager Shailesh Sawlani wrote in a recent blog post. "His/her car will need to have four physical panic buttons. In a situation of distress the rider would have to pick the correct operator's panic button to be able to get help on time."

"There is [also] no way to ensure that [the buttons] are kept in working condition across al the cars in the city," he added.

Yet they stress that not only is an in-app button a reasonable solution, but that their new, intensive Indian driver screenings should be a solid layer of defense against abuse.

"Our arrangement with First Advantage [a third-party background check firm] brings in additional layers of screening over and above the standard transport licensing process," Sawlani's blog post continued, "including: address verification, a local criminal court search, and a national criminal database search."

Amitabh Kumar, the head of communications for the Centre for Social Research, a major New Delhi-based grassroots gender-based activism and lobbying outfit, sees the panic button as a good step for women's safety, but agrees that strong background checks are more important.

"It's certainly a good measure to install such panic buttons," Kumar told VICE, "but a panic button is just one mechanism. It is more important that Uber... also does a better job of driver's background [checks]."

In addition to background checks, Kumar wants Uber to train drivers how to deal with women.

"Technologically, all the taxi companies just like Uber are doing a lot [for safety]," he said. "But when it comes to their manpower, they have to realize that they're working in a very patriarchal setup. So ensuring that their drivers are well trained, [that] they're not under the influence of alcohol—these are the forms [or protocol] that will make Uber a safer taxi service for women."

The efforts Uber's gone through to improve their security on the ground in India via background checks, even in India's notoriously difficult business climate, suggests that they are willing to invest in such trainings, or even the installation of physical buttons in consenting drivers' cars.

But Uber's willingness to engage with security concerns in India is probably a reflection not of their unbridled goodwill, but of the size and importance of the Indian market. Uber's a $40 billion company with operations in over 250 cities. Yet India, with 3,000 to 5,000 Uber drivers in New Delhi alone, has since 2013 become their second largest market, and they've been pouring money into advertising and running losses on some rides for years to cement their foothold in the promising nation.

More than that, India is an important test for Uber's international expansion. Many nations and municipalities have banned Uber, sued its owners, or just made it very clear that the company is on thin ice—but usually on the grounds that its disruptive model doesn't fit into their regulatory system, meaning they're often operating at least mildly extra-legally given existing taxis laws. The India case is one where Uber's acceptance by officials is fairly explicitly contingent on its demonstrated ability to respond to security concerns—something tied to customer experience and satisfaction and firmly in their control—rather than wiggle through policy loopholes.

Fortunately for Uber, in their efforts to win over India they have a lot of popular support. The decision to ban Uber in New Delhi sparked backlash from locals who pointed out on Twitter that regular cabs were unsafe as well, and that the alleged Uber rape was part of a larger women's safety crisis in the nation, making it illogical to lay all the blame at the app's feet. Kumar of the CSR as well says that Uber is a useful tool for increasing women's mobility, so it has a place in India's future. Local demand for Uber-esque services, coupled with the company's honest bids at reforming security, should go a long ways in helping the rideshare avoid any bans in India.

However it's unclear whether Uber plans to extend its new panic button, safety net, and above-standard security checks and response teams to nations beyond India. VICE contacted Uber at 9:50 AM seeking comment, but has not yet received a response from the company.

It's also worth noting that even in countries where Uber already had extensive background checks, there have been accusations of rape and assault by their drivers. Just last Friday, an Uber driver in the United Kingdom allegedly abandoned a young female passenger on the shoulder of a highway in the dead of night after becoming angry with her over a route change.

Background checks aren't a perfect indicator of good behavior. Even in the US it's easy for drivers to falsify them. Many fear that the Indian checks will be subject to spotty local records and the distorting effects of bribery, undercutting the legitimacy of one of Uber's main new safety assets. Likewise the new panic buttons or safety nets run the risk of failing—especially if a passenger is suffering from phone failure. And a physical button wouldn't be foolproof either.

There's probably just no way to make an Uber ride entirely safe, the same way there's no way of making any taxi ride totally safe. But the Indian reaction at least shows the app is making a real effort to play by the books, increase its security, and respond to criticism. Still, we'll have to see if it's enough of an effort to convince local governments, and if we can dig up any hard data to see how much safer these measures make the service in comparison to traditional taxis.

Follow Mark Hay on Twitter.