Mobile apps taming India's chaotic auto-rickshaws

By David Reid
Technology reporter, Delhi

image captionAuto-rickshaw drivers have the reputation - perhaps a little unfairly - as headstrong free-wheelers who would sooner leave you in simmering heat than go where they might not get another fare

There's a thin line between driving dexterity and recklessness.

Take a white-knuckle auto-rickshaw ride through Delhi's chaotic streets and that line, along with everything else, becomes very blurred indeed.

But at least you have found a ride and are going somewhere - catching an auto-rickshaw can often be a pain for Indian commuters.

If you can't find one where these three-wheeled taxis are swarming, you are forced to wait in monsoon rains or summer heat trusting your luck to a chance encounter. Not the best start to the day.

Now, in several cities across India, hailing an "auto", as they are known locally, is as simple as reaching for your phone.

image captionBusiness is business. If an auto-rickshaw refuses to take you, it is often for good reason: he doesn't want to make a loss

Auto in your pocket

In Delhi, Pooch-O is an app developed by the city's transport department to smooth commuters' way to work, and help rickshaw drivers earn more.

It pinpoints nearby rickshaws, which are detected through vehicle-installed GPS, and displays them for you on Google Maps.

You click on the icon to call a free driver. If your Hindi is as hopeless as mine you can make yourself understood by text. The auto usually arrives within the next few minutes.

image captionPooch-O's mash-up with Google maps lets customers see available auto-rickshaws in their neighbourhood

"We don't have to look for our passengers," says auto-driver Rajesh Sheena. "Wherever we are, they contact us or call us on the phone."

Before you set off, Pooch-O also helps with the awkward issue of price.

Whereas drivers in Mumbai are pretty good at agreeing to use the meter, Delhi drivers are not. The app includes a fare calculator, so meter on or meter off, you know roughly what you should be paying, making testy exchanges less likely.

media captionDavid Reid test drives the new apps for ordering India's auto-rickshaws

"The public gets onto the scooter comfortably," says driver Ram Naran, "and they do not haggle when giving the money. There is no tension."

Pooch-O has experienced some problems, however, that its designers say they are ironing out.

Users have complained they have been put through to the wrong number, and driver Bashir Hussein grumbles "nobody has ever called me. It is of no benefit to me."

image captionMeter on or meter off, the application gives you a rough idea what you ought to be paying

Pick and choose

Further south in Bangalore, a private initiative called mGaadi is attracting drivers tired of driving around wasting fuel looking for customers.

Profit margins are so tight here that most drivers are lucky to take home between 700 to 800 rupees - that's about £7.50 ($12) for a long day's work.

"Working from the morning, five o'clock until eight o'clock at night - it is a huge amount of time," says auto-driver Christie Thompson, "Fourteen hours a day, a man cannot sit in an auto. It is completely hot and even he is completely frustrated also."

image captionAuto driver Christie Thompson. By asking customers to rate drivers, mGaadi is humanising drivers and giving them professional esteem
image captionmGaadi is aiming to give drivers a steady stream of customers, so they don't waste fuel looking for clients

Drivers can picky about their passengers - the battle to make a living means they have become particular about the jobs they take on.

If they don't think they will find another job at the end of a journey, they might insist on a fixed off-meter fare or simply refuse to take a client. The business imperative is simple: if they don't do this, they make a loss.

The company says its app keeps everyone happy. For a flat charge of five rupees (5p) per ride, it feeds drivers a stream of customers. The only condition is that drivers use their meters.

Kiran Raj, an app developer at mGaadi, says: "We end up giving continuous trips to drivers, so drivers will not spend time wasting gas, so they will not ask for extra money from customers."

The mGaadi app differs from the Delhi app in that drivers here do not need to have expensive GPS installed on their rickshaws, nor do they need a pricey smartphone.

Drivers with cheaper so-called feature phones call a pre-arranged mGaadi number, and hang up after two rings. The logged call is analysed, and the driver's position established by triangulating the phone mast positions recorded in the call's metadata.

image captionmGaadi's technical team (Kiran Raj is third from the left) have built an app they hope will give drivers a steady stream of clients
image captionDrivers don't have to have an app installed - they call a number to indicate their location

Safety first

Considerable thought has also gone into the psychology of the relationships the app is forging.

Like Uber, mGaadi encourages app users to rate their journeys and drivers. These performance rankings help elevate the status of a driver from faceless operative to respected professional.

The app also allows users to track journeys by receiving text updates, enabling concerned parents, say, to monitor the progress of their children as they come home from school.

image captionVishy Kuruganti, co-founder of mGaadi, hopes that location tracking will re-assure rickshaw travellers and their families about using the service

Vishy Kuruganti, mGaadi's co-founder, says: "Just the fact that someone is taking an mGaadi trip where the driver's name, identification, other details like phone number, vehicle and all that, is known, that itself adds to a lot of comfortable feeling.

"And then on top of that you add other things that will come on, such as tracking the location constantly, then it will give a whole lot of comfort to the commuter as well as the commuter's family."

India may be a country obsessed by smartphones and technology, but it is also a place where systems often often fray at the edges.

At least apps like Pooch-O in Delhi and mGaadi in Bangalore are trying to bring more order to a sometimes chaotic transport system.

In doing so they are raising the status and incomes of drivers and helping passengers to find transport, making it cheaper and safer for them as well.

image captionAn auto-rickshaw on the streets of Delhi

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