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Monday, April 19, 2021

Hail the New Auto

With polite drivers, autos on call and GPS-enabled trip meters, the autorickshaw is getting a makeover in Chennai and Bangalore.

Written by Gopu Mohan , V Shoba |
Updated: April 6, 2014 12:54:16 am
Vehicles of Peace Auto, Bangalore, queue up. Vehicles of Peace Auto, Bangalore, queue up.

Twenty-eight-year-old Gouri Shankar prides himself on driving the shortest possible route through the maze-like streets of Bangalore. “Here, let me show you,” he says, after we hop into his autorickshaw one recent afternoon. He whips out his Android smartphone from its mount on the windshield, points to three options to Malleshwaram from central Bangalore and assures us that he will pick the shortest — at 7.2 km.

Thousands of commuters in the city, still sore from being over-charged, turned down or cheated, are in for a pleasant surprise. Driving this change is a simple happiness meter. Until a few months ago, Shankar admits, he often used his navigational skills to rip off unsuspecting commuters. But when the auto tariff was last hiked in December to Rs 13 per km, he started losing customers to cab companies. To haul himself — and the reputation of the autowalla in Bangalore — out of this hole, Shankar seized upon the idea of a makeover. “I realised that when I was good to a customer, he/she too would be nice to me,” he says, gently reminding us to rate him on Happy Auto, an Android app for rating auto drivers that was launched with much fanfare in December last year by the Bangalore Traffic Police. Called Sugama Savari, the initiative crowdsources feedback from commuters on five parameters — the driver’s willingness to ply, his behaviour, charging by the meter, abiding by traffic rules and taking the best route. The feedback, collected across platforms — mobile app, Web and SMS — is then collated to generate a rating on a scale of one to 10. Auto drivers who consistently score eight or more are rewarded with a “Sugama Savari” sticker to display on their vehicle.

MA Parthasarathy, a retired IT professional who came up with the concept of Sugama Savari over six months ago, realised that while people were always complaining about auto drivers, there was no system to reward good behaviour.

Parthasarathy now works closely with the traffic police to motivate drivers to behave better. His Android app has seen over 2,000 downloads. “We have received feedback from 600-plus commuters so far. Over 40 per cent of it is good,” he says.

Until recently, Chennai had two types of autorickshaws — the ones that didn’t run by meter and the ones that didn’t run. Fares were charged arbitrarily, radio cabs were gaining ground and spiralling fuel prices made it increasingly unviable for the few honest auto drivers in the city to ride along looking for pickups. Autos, in effect, had started to look like railway porters in the age of strolley bags. But in August last year, the Tamil Nadu government stepped in decisively to revise the fare structure after chairing a tripartite meeting with the unions and passengers, and then made digital meters mandatory. This spawned a wave of ventures run by enterprising young people, who saw opportunity in organising modern, efficient, and, importantly, hassle-free autorickshaw rides.

Among the first of these startups was Namma Auto (Our Auto), launched in May 2013 by two friends, M Abdulla and Mansoor Ali Khan. Working among auto drivers, they realised there were an equal number of complaints from them about ever-rising fuel costs and increasing competition from call-taxis and share-autos. “We launched months before the government revised the fares. Our meters charged much less that the prevailing rates — even less than what was eventually fixed by the authorities — because we were sure there were enough patrons who were looking for a safe and comfortable ride, and drivers unwilling to haggle for every trip,” says Moosa Sabi Khan, general manager, Namma Auto.

The autos are not very different to look at, except for the bright yellow “Namma Auto” board on top. But inside is a tamper-proof digital meter that displays precise tariff and prints a receipt. It connects to the company’s office through GPS and GPRS, and has a panic button that offers a sense of security to passengers, especially women. “Their drivers don’t haggle, will never say no to a ride, and will always give a receipt. Only someone who has hailed a Chennai auto before will understand what this means to a passenger,” says A Vasudevan, a private company employee. On a route that he takes regularly, the drivers would earlier quote Rs 120 and eventually agree to ply for Rs 80. Now, with Namma Auto, it costs him Rs 65 without bargaining.

There are about 80 Namma Autos on Chennai’s streets today, 50 of them owned by the company. These will be handed over to the driver after three years of service. Under this model, the driver is paid Rs 5,000 per month as fixed salary, plus 30 per cent of the income from his trips. In the case of driver-owned autos, he also gets between Rs 150 and Rs 180 per day as rent, depending on the condition of the vehicle.

Earlier this month, Khan launched his own company, Makkal Auto — folks’ wagon, if you may. It offers all the basic conveniences of Namma Auto and more. Khan, 26, an MCA graduate, wants to create a network of auto owners using an Android-powered tablet enhanced with patented technology that displays not just the tariff, but also online maps and advertisements and has improved security features like cameras. These autos are available on call, and there is a smartphone app to hail your ride. Some of these vehicles are even fitted with portable credit card swiping machines.

Khan says trade union representatives are open to the idea of transformation. “Our call centre will intimate them about trips, besides arranging regular rides, but we won’t charge for the service. The revenue will come from advertisements that run on the screen and are printed on the bill,” he says.

The auto experience of the future has to be a stress-free one, says Poonam Sharad, 32, a software professional from Whitefield, Bangalore, who takes an “auto-taxi” to work and back every day. Sharad uses mGaadi, an auto booking app, to book her rides. In a little more than a year, mGaadi, the brainchild of a group of technologists and social entrepreneurs in Bangalore, has blossomed into a smart, location-based network of over a thousand autos.

In Chennai, Auto Raja, another startup that is trying to bridge the gap between auto drivers and commuters, is raking up a loyal following. Founded by former corporate executive Anubhav Agrawal and Oxford sociologist Aishwarya Raman last April, it now has a network of 1,050 drivers. “I have had terrible experiences with autos in Chennai. With a company now responsible for these new autos, I feel assured,” says Priya VP, a teacher at a private college who uses the service.

Raman wants to scale up, but says technology costs are hampering Auto Raja’s progress. “The two-way communication
system on taxis cost between Rs 10,000 and Rs 30,000, which is too expensive for an auto,” says Raman, who is working with IIT-Madras to develop a dedicated system for backend operations.

The new auto experience isn’t exclusive to a club of smartphone users. The Madras Metro Auto Drivers’ Association, a 10,000-strong union affiliated to the All India Trade Union Congress, is in the process of setting up a facility where passengers can hire an auto by sending an SMS. In Bangalore, a city where autos have long been seen as the bullies on the road, another small movement is afoot in Peace Auto, a network of about 75 auto drivers trained by Anil Shetty, 24, an entrepreneur and social worker. Shetty’s drivers, most of them from an auto stand in Koramangala, wear Peace Auto badges, charge as per meter, and are civil to customers. The autos come with a stack of magazines and a feedback form, sponsored by well-wishers and corporates. “We have got feedback from 2,500 commuters since we launched last year.

And most of it has been positive,” says Shetty. Drivers say that with Peace Auto, there is more dignity to their work. A smart, safe auto is an idea whose time has come, but with over 1.2 lakh autos in Bangalore, it is going to be one long ride.

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