I have nothing but admiration for Uber. Since it entered the car-hire a few years ago, it has attracted attacks from those who previously dominated the market: New York and London taxi drivers, for instance, as well as “taxi” (minibus) drivers in Johannesburg. But it has largely weathered these attacks well – except I the UK – and is now expanding into Africa quite fast.
I was pleasantly surprised when a relative of mine in Accra suggested that I should use Uber to go home after I'd visited her.
“Uber in Ghana?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “Just get the Uber app installed on your phone. It works in the same way as in London – you call up the service on the Net; the app picks up your location from your phone and arranges a pick-up point for you. Then, it's all systems go.
Best of all, the app remembers where you picked the service from, and so can take you back there with the greatest of ease. The GPS direction service Uber uses is really very good.”
So I tried Uber in Accra. It was just as good as my relative had predicted.
Except for one thing: Uber cars in Ghana are very tiny! And, pardon the expression, rather naff!
Uber appears to prefer the tiniest models made by KIA, Daihatsu and a few other rather down-market car manufacturers.
The cars are spacious enough, to be sure. But they are so small that personally, I find they create insecurity in me. I just can't help asking myself: if this car were to be ranged from the side, the front or the back, would anyone in it survive? Or avoid serious injury?
Now, I don't like sitting in a car and having to speculate on my chances of survival if it's involved in an accident. So I suggest to Uber that it should provide cars with a little more “body” to them, so as to introduce a bit of psychological security into its service in Ghana.
At the moment, Uber drivers in Ghana have been schooled to parrot, when one complains about the size of the cars they use, that they use small cars “because of the heavy traffic, which causes a high consumption of petrol.”
Yipes: this is a disingenuous argument. Accra traffic is by no means worse than the traffic in London or New York, and yet in both cities, one can get a ride in a reasonably “nice” car.
Does Uber know that Ghana taxi drivers are well-known for plying the roads with cars whose windows cannot open; whose air-conditioning is always “short of gas” and are thereby inoperable? Does Uber want to provide a better service, or join them in short-changing Ghanaian passengers?
I mean – in London, I've been pleasantly surprised to call Uber on occasion and be presented with a spacious BMW – twice. Even so, one is offered the option of an even more luxurious car by the app used in London. If that option is truly available, I haven't noticed it on the Uber app used in Ghana.
I am also irritated by the fact that on many occasions, I've had to request the Uber driver to stop the car, retrieve the safety belt from under the back seat, and strap me in properly! One driver told me that “the belt was pushed under the seat by the people who washed the car.” I don't remember the other excuses but they were similar! Uber should realise that if it is ILLEGAL to ride in a car without putting on the safety belt in the UK and elsewhere, the east its Ghana drivers should do is not hide their safety belts so that the passenger cannot have access to them! Indeed, their use should be mandatory and not left to the discretion of the passenger.
It appears to me that too often, companies that operate both in Ghana and abroad, somehow manage to provide an inferior service in Ghana, compared to what is provided elsewhere. If Uber used the sort of cars it uses in Ghana in the UK, for example, it would fold up in two days flat.
Uber is, of course, able to get away with it largely because our regulatory authorities are, usually either ignorant, or corrupt, or both. Or they simply don't give a damn about the public interest. Otherwise, I can't see how one has to DEMAND the use of a safety belt in a car before one can access it. Some cars even warn the driver when a safety belt is not in use. But I have never heard such bleep in a Uber car. Why? Have the drivers switched off the sensor?
I tried to report to Uber, the difficulty I found in using safety belts in its cars. But all one is asked to do, after a ride, is to “rate” the ride by clicking on a series of stars. Four stars good, one star bad. That sort of thing. I haven't so far seen anything in the app that asks you to state WHAT YOU FOUND WRONG with the service!
It is the cavalier attitude towards passengers' welfare allegedly shown by Uber in the UK that has got it in trouble in both New York and London. In London, Uber has been told it is going to be banned altogether, in four weeks time, due to lapses the licensing authority has noticed in the system. Uber is appealing against the decision to ban it. But I am sure the ban would not have been imposed at all, in the first place, if Uber had had its ears properly to the ground.
I urge the Ghana licensing authorities to take a second look at the service here – first, better cars should be used and second, the use of safety belt must be enforced. The licensing authority should ask Uber to police its cars and provide evidence that it does this regularly. The other day, I had a very noisy Uber car sent to me. How could Uber allow such a car to be in its fleet?
Now, it is true that we do not have a Ralph Nader here who can subject the Uber cars to a thorough examination and perhaps come to the conclusion that they “unsafe at any speed” (as Nader described VW 'Beetles' during the 1960s and 70s, when 'Beetles' held sway over the small car market.)
Today, VW makes some of the top marques in the world – no doubt, having learnt from the criticism heaped upon the 'Beetle' by Ralph Nader. However, rather than learn a lesson from its encounters with Ralph Nader, VW seems to have gone back to its bad ways and has been heavily fined in the US and Europe for malpractices aimed at producing false reports on pollution emitted by VW diesel engines.