Dara Khosrowshahi. Picture: REUTERS
Dara Khosrowshahi. Picture: REUTERS

Sao Paulo — Ride-hailing company Uber Technologies planned to open a 250-million real ($64m) centre in Brazil to develop technology to improve safety for its passengers and drivers, including for drivers to accept cash, a crucial payment method in its rapid expansion in Latin America, the company said on Friday.

Uber’s safety product director Sachin Kansal said in an interview that the investment over the next five years would fund an office with about 150 technology specialists in Sao Paulo, where the company provided more rides than anywhere in the world.

The development centre, Uber’s first in Latin America and one of a dozen around the world, will open by the end of 2018.

Brazil is Uber’s second-largest national market after the US, with one billion rides in the past four years and a profitable bottom line, according to executives. Yet the imperative of accepting cash for rides instead of relying solely on credit and debit cards has also brought safety challenges.

CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, who took the helm one year ago, has said that safety is Uber’s top priority.

While in the US and other developed markets concerns have focused on the safety of riders, in emerging markets the danger can cut both ways, as drivers accepting cash have become targets for attacks.

"Cash is extremely important for us to support," Kansal said.

"There is a certain segment of society which does not have access to credit cards and that is also the segment of society that is probably in the most need of convenient, reliable transportation," he said.

New tools helped to confirm the identity of users without credit cards, he said. One such method, which requires the Brazilian equivalent of a social security number for a rider to pay with cash, was introduced in 2017 after a spike in attacks.

Kansal said Uber was also using machine learning to block trips it considered risky. He declined to share the number of trips that had been flagged by its systems. Uber also allows drivers and riders to share their locations with contacts. The percentage of Uber users that activate the feature is in the "high single digits," he said.

"Drivers are using it more than riders globally," Kansal said, "but the magnitude of that difference in Latin America is actually quite high."