Entrepreneurship Industry News

Where Indian skill steers global wheel for cab major

A decade ago, when Travis Kalanick, co-founder of worldwide ride-hailing colossus Uber, was working at another venture he and his team flew to Thiruvananthapuram, took a bus to a beach and did coding from there. The idea behind the trip was that entrepreneurs need to seek adventure because they can work from anywhere. A lot has changed since then. Last year, when Mr. Kalanick visited the country for the Startup India event, he declared that research & development and innovation now abound in three areas in the world — the Bay Area, Beijing and Bengaluru.

Uber has quietly built a team of engineers at its research and development centre in Bengaluru. They are playing a key role to help the world’s most valuable start-up, worth around $70 billion, for its self-driving technologies, mapping and vehicle safety efforts.

“A lot of these self-driving cars depend on mapping data and what we feed into the car. A lot of that mapping work happens in India,” said Apurva Dalal, head of India engineering at Uber, in an interview.

Uber ventured into the self-driving programme two years ago when it established the Advanced Technologies Group (ATG) Center in Pittsburgh in the U.S. During that period, it also hired many researchers from the robotics department of Carnegie Mellon University for its project to replace human drivers with computers. Last March, the San Francisco, California-based company established its first engineering centre in Asia in Bengaluru.

Create in India

The challenges in India have also made Uber’s engineering team here come up with solutions unique to the country and then replicate them in other parts of the world. Uber engineer Madhumita Chakraborty, 27, said that she was on a mission to make rider payments as frictionless as possible. She said that given the demand for cash as a payment option in the country, her team launched the cash payment options for riders in India, a first such initiative in the world of Uber. “What we do here applies to emerging markets including South-East Asia, as well,” said Ms. Chakraborty, an alumnus of Jadavpur University.

As a tech lead for the driver growth team, another Uber engineer Naomi Chopra, 27, said that his focus had been to use technology to make the driver on-boarding process seamless and rewarding. Mr. Chopra has been instrumental in driving UberDOST, a driver referral programme that was conceptualised and rolled out in India first. It is now being used extensively in more than 20 countries across Asia, Europe and Latin America to on-board thousands of partners every day.

As part of a global initiative, this year, Uber unveiled a series of new safety features in the driver’s app to predict, prevent and reduce the number of crashes on the road in India. The app is powered by telematics, a technology that collects and analyses driver behaviour. It monitors patterns, for example when drivers brake harshly or are driving too fast, by tracking the sensors in their smartphones.

Mr. Dalal of Uber said that his engineering team was not only aiming at improving the experience of riders and drivers but was also looking at the vehicles as “entities.” “Even if the driver’s phone is turned off, I should still be able to detect the heartbeats of the vehicle,” he said.