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App-laud the alternative taxi

driver with iPHONE and a smile, rider without cash or scowl

Uber what? Uber why? Uber how? Uber wow!

In less than 48 hours of its first download in Calcutta, a nifty mobile app meant to connect the commuter to the nearest cab has given the city a potential antidote to taxi trauma.

Metro took half-a-dozen UberBlack rides over the first two days of the service to find out what’s hot and what’s not. Here’s what the road test revealed.

Overall experience

A triple smiley!!!

We had requested our first Uber pickup on Tuesday night from CR Avenue, near the Chandni Chowk Metro station, at 10.40pm. The confirmation popped on the phone screen along with the name and mugshot of the driver, the make of the car and its registration number. We started walking towards the pickup point, eyes fixed on the map in the app that showed our car on the Park Street flyover. Time enough to play a little game.

Two yellow taxis were waiting near where we stood. We walked up to the first driver. “Kothay (Where)?” he quizzed.

The answer, Baguiati, elicited a shake of the head before he looked away. The second driver asked for Rs 250, paused and popped the question: “Baguiati mane kothay (Where in Baguiati)?”

At 10.49pm, a white sedan arrived with a middle-aged driver who nodded in acknowledgement before unlocking the rear left door. So, when was the last time a taxi driver opened a door for you? Hmm…

The car

Four types of cars ferried us over two days: a Hyundai Verna, a Toyota Innova, a Maruti SX4 and a Maruti Swift Dzire. The SX4 and Verna were white with commercial number plates and no branding. The other cars being used for the UberBLACK service in Calcutta are Honda City and Toyota Corolla.

The interiors of all six cars were clean, though not spotlessly so. The power windows, central locking and air-conditioning worked fine and the shock absorbers did not cry out for replacement even on monsoon craters.

The pickup

The wait for an Uber cab could be shorter. Uber gives you an ETA (estimated time of arrival) but it wasn’t accurate for four of the six rides we took.

A car at the Park Circus seven-point crossing gave an ETA of 4 minutes for a pickup at Ballygunge Phari around 12.40pm. Very ambitious in post-rain traffic, we thought and so it turned out. The pickup took 28 minutes. A car at the airport promised a pickup in a lane near Nagerbazar in 12 minutes but took more than 25 minutes to reach.

“The GPS is not taking into account traffic congestion and the condition of the roads. I was at Chingrihata when I got a request to pick up someone at Picnic Garden. The ETA was about 20 minutes, so I called up the person to say that I would probably need about 45 minutes to reach him. He immediately cancelled the booking,” said a driver.

One of the drivers, Sovan, picked us up for a second ride two hours after he had dropped us on Golf Club Road on Wednesday afternoon. Asked if he had made other trips in the interregnum, he said: “There were a few queries but the passengers backed out after hearing the ETA.”

Arrival time aside, five of the six pickups were seamless. Only one of the drivers had to call for directions since he was not comfortable using the map for navigation. “I can’t look at maps while driving. A sergeant will catch me!” he said.

The iPhone

“The driver has an iPhone!”

Yes, that’s the first thought that strikes the first-time passenger on entering an UberBLACK cab. Fixed to a stand on the dashboard, windshield or pillar, the iPhone is the GPS device, contact interface and billing contraption rolled into one.

The driver swiped a button on the screen to indicate the start of the ride. A map similar to the one on our Uber app immediately appeared on the screen, showing the progress of the car. We didn’t have to mention our destination during any part of the booking process for six rides over two days. During one of the rides, we typed the destination on our app instead of verbally mentioning it and the information immediately appeared on the driver’s iPhone along with an audio alert.

UberBLACK drivers have been given a customised iPhone each so that only the app can be used on it. Calls, text messages and any other use are barred. The driver switches on the iPhone to make his car available to potential riders and switches it off when he wants to take a break or his shift ends.

The driver

A smile and a “hello!” greeted us on each occasion, replacing the scowl or sullen silence we were used to. All the drivers wore light-coloured shirts, black trousers and shoes.

Rabin, our first driver, was an eager talker. The Thakurpukur resident, who has been driving for 25 years, said he was thrilled to be a part of such an innovative service. “At least something is happening in Bengal!” he said as the SX4 stopped at a signal on the CR Avenue-MG Road crossing.

Another said a new batch of drivers were being trained on Wednesday to expand the fleet.

The ride

The moment an Uber cab starts moving, the passenger has the option of sharing through text, email or a social network a link to track the vehicle. This feature is a boon for women travelling alone at night. On our first ride, our colleagues in office tracked the SX4’s movement in street-level detail and were notified as soon as we reached Baguiati.

Lack of information about traffic condition and one-way rules on the iPhone map proved a hurdle. One of the drivers took a wrong turn from Ballygunge Circular Road towards Elgin Road-Camac Street en route to the city centre. When reminded of the one-way restriction, he thanked us and turned towards Theatre Road.

On reaching a destination, each driver would swipe a button on the iPhone to lock the trip. The fare would instantly appear on the driver’s and passenger’s mobile-phone screens. We received emailed receipts with the journey details and a map showing the route taken after every ride.

A 16.17km ride from BT College More near Madhyamgram to Chandni Chowk on Wednesday afternoon cost Rs 291. A yellow cab had charged a metered fare of Rs 320 over the same distance in similar traffic last week. Fudged meter possibly.

The promo base fare is Rs 40 plus Rs 12 for each kilometre and Re 1 for every minute of travel. That’s a small premium over yellow-cab fares, which many might be more than willing to pay for not having to prod, plead and haggle. Consider the smooth ride in air-conditioned comfort and that’s a big bang for your buck.