In December of last year Uber published a report on safety on its US platform. It was a bold move accompanied by calls for other forms of transportation to follow suit and help to expose the extent of the issue for women in the US. While in many respects Uber is putting itself on the line with the report, it is worth bearing in mind that women around the world to varying extents deal with the very real dangers of traveling alone – particularly late at night – and ride sharing platforms are not the only players in the game.
As cities move towards automated public transportation, governments have to be increasingly creative and proactive rather than reactive about ensuring that women are not targeted as they travel. For example, here in Taipei, buses are fitted with a straightforward alarm bell that passengers can press to alert the driver in the case of sexual harassment. The expectation is that the driver will take the lead in handling the issue, and informing the police – a simple solution, but certainly not an infallible one. Considering the move to autonomous vehicles, how would this system work without the presence of a driver?
Is a driverless vehicle a safer vehicle?
In late spring of 2020 Taipei’s first driverless bus will start running a late night service between the hours of midnight and 2am along Xinyi Road, a major thoroughfare that connects the administrative heart of the city to a busy shopping and clubbing district. If the two-month trial period is successful the city plans to roll out a midnight to 5am service to further serve the needs of late night revelers. While the current proposal includes a staff member to intervene in an emergency, it seems logical that the ultimate goal is to create a genuinely human-free service. What then of safety concerns in the wee hours of the morning?
Uber’s US example offers some lessons on how to incorporate safety features that could provide a rapid response and a deterrent for predators, making it clear that they are unlikely to get away with their actions. For example, Uber has begun introducing an in-app emergency button which can inform the emergency services of the location of the Uber. Similarly, driverless vehicles could be connected to an on-bus alert system which serves a similar function and notifies the nearest police station of the vehicle number and location on the route.
Additionally, pressing the button could also cause the video recording system to flag the precise moment the report was made in order to easily and efficiently find evidence, facilitating the process of making the report by the person who has been assaulted. Automated buses should also have external cameras which may help police investigate alleged incidents.
As in other countries, it is thought that sexual assaults are vastly underreported in Taiwan for the fear of having to ‘prove’ the assault took place. An environment with good lighting and smart camera systems can go a long way towards alleviating such fears, removing the burden of proof and ideally allowing a modicum of anonymity for the victim.
Will autonomous bus services be able to displace ride-sharing and taxis? Potential routes for autonomous buses are limited in Taipei city as the road layout necessary – dedicated bus lanes – is not evenly distributed throughout the city, which means that ride sharing platforms such as Uber are likely to remain popular.
Safety and Ridesharing
Other major cities across the globe have banned Uber outright, with London recently imposing a second ban late last year after a string of safety failures including drivers faking their credentials. The government in Taiwan has been particularly keen to bring Uber into line, insisting that drivers must pass the local taxi driver test and get the accompanying professional number plates. However, this measure does not entirely solve the issue of drivers ‘borrowing’ an Uber vehicle, as was the case with the DiDi ridesharing service in China, where a son used his father’s account to find his victim.
It remains to be seen if Uber Taiwan will follow its US counterpart with another measure mentioned in the Uber US safety report – insisting on Real-time ID checks where the driver must take a live photo before accepting a ride to verify that they are the authorized driver. Another solution is the introduction of facial recognition in vehicles to confirm the driver’s identity, a strategy DiDi and others are currently working on.
Although the US Uber facial recognition verification method appears to rely on mobile phone technology an alternative solution could come in the form of dash-cams with facial recognition enabled in the interior camera. Additionally dash-cams offer security to drivers who, according to the Uber report, often report incidents of abuse, or indeed sexual assault. Making dash cam or driver recorders compulsory in a ride-sharing vehicles give both drivers and passengers improved safety and accountability.
The changing face of mobility has the potential to have a very positive impact on the female safety in urban environments. However, at the moment, issues remain with both ridesharing, and public transportation (autonomous or manned) – a fact underlined by the data released by Uber a few weeks ago.
Written by Phoebe Cassidy, writer and long-term resident of Taipei, Taiwan.
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