Beginning today, Uber is rolling out a new chat feature to allow drivers and riders to communicate without ever leaving the Uber app. This promises to smooth interactions and eliminate some disincentives built into the way the Uber service and app were configured.
Consider this example: My wife and I went flew to Paris last December. On landing, I connected my phone to the Charles de Gaulle airport Wi-Fi network, specifically so we could call for an Uber ride. Unfortunately, there was some confusion between us and our driver about where we were to be picked up and, because I was on Wi-Fi, I couldn’t call or send a follow-up text message to our driver.
It took 30 minutes, but eventually we found our driver and enjoyed a fantastic week in Paris. But it left a bad impression of Uber and was a frustrating beginning to our trip. This is what Uber’s new chat function aims to fix.
The new app provides basic but effective in-app messaging. It’ll help passengers on Wi-Fi at a foreign airport, and it’ll help Uber drivers as well. When a driver receives a message, the app automatically opens it and reads it aloud. With a single tap, drivers can acknowledge receipt and send a thumbs-up back to the rider or respond with their own message.
Currently, when a driver or rider needs to contact the other to clarify a pickup location or advise that they’re running a few minutes late, the app will connect the two through a phone call or an SMS message. That process pushes the user out of the Uber app and to the phone or a messaging app. After the call or text is completed, the user has to jump back to the Uber app. The company calls this jumping in and out of the app “ping-ponging,” said Jeremy Lermitte, an Uber product manager.
It leads to other problems. In some markets—Brazil, for example—phone calls are expensive, adding a significant incremental cost to hailing an Uber ride. The cost makes both riders and drivers hesitant to make calls, which in turn can lead to cancellations. In many markets, including the United States, Uber has the technology to act as a middleman and anonymize contact details during calls and texts. But that’s not the case everywhere, which means drivers and riders are handing over their personal contact information, another disincentive.
Finally, both riders and drivers want to know if the other party has received and read their message, something that isn’t possible with standard SMS messaging.
The rollout of the new messaging service begins today in the United States, Latin America, Southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and India, with Europe and the rest of the world coming over the next several weeks. Uber also wants to improve the voice-calling experience—”It would be a logical next step,” said Lermitte—although the company said it has nothing to announce on that topic.