Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: IT Innovation for Small Businesses

The Indian auto rickshaw gets a tech makeover

GPS tracking via an Android app may transform the often-cursed auto experience in the country into a dependable one.

To Westerners, the auto rickshaw is a quaint icon of a timeless India. To residents of India, it's more often than not a symbol of unending aggravation and a necessary evil. Often, the reason for the latter is because the government-mandated rate that the rickshaw's meter reflects can be seriously misaligned with the market prices for petrol or liquefied natural gas (LNG), forcing rickshaw drivers to charge you more, while giving you the impression that you're getting ritually fleeced. And sometimes, you just are.

Whichever way you want to look at it, if you're forced to depend on this agile, three-wheeling mainstay of the Indian road for your daily commute, daily haggling is the last thing your nerves need as you're trying to rush to work. That is, if you're lucky enough to flag one down in the first place. No city offers a more frustrating experience in this domain than Bangalore.

This could be a thing of the past, thanks to Solomon Prakash, a former country director of Ashoka, the global, social entrepreneurship-focused non-profit. Prakash has launched a service called mGaadi under the aegis of the India Drivers Network, which basically propels the lowly auto into the modern era. The mGaadi team has designed a nifty Android app that, once downloaded, allows you to book an auto, rate auto drivers, and track trips. Message alerts are sent to drivers to respond to trip requests. Pickups cost Rs 10 ($0.16) extra.

Apparently, 550 auto drivers have already registered with mGaadi, agreeing to stick to the meter. Not surprisingly, regularity in getting fares and not having to waste time and fuel money cruising for customers can significantly boost auto drivers' incomes. Meanwhile, the next version of the app will also tack on safety features, such as real-time sharing of trips with friends and family (on the app) and a GPS-enabled fare calculator.

"MGaadi's basic aim is to close the communication loop between the commuter and driver," said Solomon in an earlier interview.

For drivers who don't have cheap smartphones, Solomon's team has given them inexpensive GPS devices. Another Bangalore outfit, called Peace Auto, which is funded by the Wockhardt foundation, also recently launched a similar service that uses GPS-enabled tracking and tamper-proof meters.

However, giving autos a facelift hasn't been so peachy in the past. Bangalore's Easy Auto was a pioneer in this space, launching in 2007, but forced to shut shop soon after — evidently because of scaling issues. But others, like Autowale, which operates a service similar to mGaadi's in Pune, has been successfully running a pilot in Bangalore, and says that it will be starting operations there very soon.

So, while the slew of recent taxi and ride-share startups like Uber and OlaCabs have attracted the lion's share of attention thanks to their much-hyped GPS and app-enabled services, they might just get eclipsed by the real rajah of Indian roads.

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