Uber shot to global prominence as a smartphone-native platform for hailing private cars, but the company is now going old-school by opening to telephone bookings in the U.S.
Starting from today in Arizona, Uber users will be able to dial 1-833-USE-UBER from any mobile phone and speak with a live operator who will serve as an intermediary between rider and driver. The caller will need a phone with basic text-based messaging functionality, where they will receive key messages, such as their expected ETA, details about the driver and car, and the trip receipt.
First-time users of this service will need to create an account by providing personal details, such as zip code and credit card information, to the operator — this will then be associated with the number they’re using to place the call. For all future trips, payment will be automatically taken from the rider’s account, as it would through the mobile app.
There’s no additional charge for using the telephone service, beyond any standard carrier rates for sending text messages.
Uber has previously tested a similar service in other markets around the world, including Mexico, Ukraine, India, and Egypt. But opening such functionality to its core domestic market in the U.S. represents a notable evolution for the platform — or regression, depending on how you look at it.
Pew Research reports that 81% of U.S. adults own a smartphone and 13% own a non-smart mobile phone. According to the 2010 Census, an estimated 235 million adults live in the U.S., meaning at least 30 million people own a mobile phone that doesn’t qualify as a smartphone. As Uber battles widening losses in the hunt for profitability, opening to telephone-based bookings increases its potential market significantly.
The new service is specifically aimed at older adults who have yet to embrace mobile internet, and Uber is very much positioning this offering alongside its other accessibility programs, such as Uber Assist. It’s also worth noting that Uber already offers a feature that allows anyone to order an Uber on behalf of someone else, meaning you can order a car for an elderly relative through the Uber app. And Uber offers browser-based bookings via m.uber.com, though this still requires the user to set up their own Uber account in advance.
Telephone-based bookings help Uber target consumers who have yet to embrace any form of internet-based mobile technology and don’t want to rely on loved ones to book cars on their behalf.
“This new feature combines the efficiency of Uber’s matching technology with the convenience and additional support of a live team member,” the company wrote in a blog post. “It was designed with older adults in mind, though our hope is anyone preferring conversational support will benefit from this pilot. We built it based on feedback from older adults who told us the live conversations and simplicity of experience can make a difference for their transportation needs.”
Another segment of society could find this new service useful. A growing awareness around smartphone addiction has led to more stripped-down phones arriving on the market to cater to a niche of people looking for “digital detox.” However, one of the underlying problems with these phones is that they lack the basic utilities we’ve become accustomed to, such as navigation tools, WhatsApp (or equivalent), and on-demand ride-hailing. Opening Uber to telephone bookings makes basic feature phones just that little bit more usable for anyone looking to wean themselves off their screen.
The 1-833-USE-UBER service is open to all Arizona markets Uber currently operates in, and the company said it plans to expand the service to more states later this year after garnering feedback from the pilot.