Uber has announced a couple of notable updates to its business-focused platform, as the ride-hail giant seeks fresh revenue streams after a turbulent six months that saw gross ride bookings fall by up to 73% on last year.

The launch also comes as businesses figure out a way to safely exit lockdown and return their workers to offices and warehouses without enduring crowded public transit — something that Uber’s latest services go some way toward addressing. In the coming weeks Uber is introducing a new group rides product for employees, enabling companies to organize journeys for workers to travel together — it’s essentially a carpool for coworkers.

Employees hit the “choose group rides” button in the main Uber app, and Uber then matches them with fellow workers traveling roughly in the same direction.

Above: Uber: Carpool for coworkers

Ride-sharing is perhaps not the most alluring prospect during a global pandemic, which is why Uber and its ilk pulled their carpool services back in March. But the general idea behind Uber’s new service is that people will be more comfortable sharing rides with coworkers than with complete strangers, particularly if it’s part of a broader employer strategy to return people to their normal places of work. Additionally, a lot of people don’t have the option of working remotely, which could make Uber’s new services particularly appealing for some firms.

“In general, what we’re hearing from enterprise customers is that they want to try and maintain as much social distancing as possible and create a sort of workplace bubble within the organization,” Ronnie Gurion, global head of Uber for Business, told VentureBeat. “Employers can set their own guidelines around who can come into the office and when, work together with employees to determine what they are comfortable with, and design a customized commuting experience for employees.”

The company can decide who covers the cost — it can elect to pay for it all, subsidize a portion of it, or require workers to pay for the trips themselves, as they would with a normal commute to work. The employer can also specify the days and times which these group rides are available to the workforce.

On top of that, Uber is also launching a charter service that taps vehicles from third-party fleet providers, covering buses, vans, SUVs, and sedans. This is what Uber refers to as a more “robust commute program,” allowing employers to offer rides to anyone or only to select employees from the company. This will also include partners that offer “enhanced safety and cleanliness standards” upon request.

Above: Uber Charter service

So with the business charter service, companies can reserve entire vehicles that are customizable to their needs — they can operate fixed or flexible routes as required.

Adapt

Across the technology spectrum, companies have had to swiftly adapt their businesses to the so-called “new normal,” and Uber specifically has had to move nimbly as demand for ride-hailing plunged in the wake of the coronavirus crisis. Indeed, with revenues down around 29% year-on-year, Uber has been working to increase its capital and fund its recovery. Just last week Uber announced plans to borrow $500 million by refinancing debt, while rumors abound that it’s planning to sell part of its $6.3 billion stake in China’s Didi.

As part of its recovery plan, Uber has rolled out support for feature phones, launched a courier service for friends and family, and doubled down on grocery deliveries. Moreover, as the world has slowly eased out of lockdown, Uber now verifies that drivers are wearing face masks using computer vision smarts.

Uber has offered a business-focused service since 2014. It later expanded this to include food delivery in the U.S., and Uber Eats for business was finally made available globally back in April, amid a remote working surge due to COVID-19.

According to Gurion, Uber for Business was already working on new ridesharing services, but as with many things related to COVID-19, it has to reprioritize its roadmap.

“The new solutions have been in the works for a while now, but as interest increased from companies starting to plan and adapt their commuting strategies for the new normal, we made the decision to accelerate the roll-out,” he said. 

It’s clear that Uber has been pushing to expand the utility of its core platform, with corporate group rides and charters fitting neatly into that push. Both new services will be available as pilot programs across North America, Europe, and Asia-Pacific “in the next few weeks,” according to Uber, ahead of a broader launch later in the year.


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