China’s Didi removes 300,000 drivers amid safety overhaul

2018 was the year when Didi Chuxing, the ride-hailing company that defeated Uber in China, vowed to put safety ahead of rocket-ship growth after two deadly passenger incidents. One way it works to ramp up safety is a stricter vetting process for drivers.

The mobility giant said Tuesday to a group of media that it has removed more than 300,000 drivers who don’t meet its standards since launching a safety overhaul last year. That adds pressure to an already loss-making company, which some speculate could be hit with a halved valuation (link in Chinese) since reaching an $80 billion high last year, for which passenger wait time is crucial to the success of its business.

In the long term, Didi could address the driver shortage by betting on robotaxis. The Information reported this week that the seven-year-old company is in talks with its largest shareholder SoftBank and other investors about raising money for an autonomous driving unit.

Didi is also hoping to keep both drivers and passengers happy by hiring more support staff. The company said it now has some 9,000 customer service reps on standby 24/7 to take questions from drivers and passengers; half of the agents are in-house staff. The number exceeded an earlier goal of 8,000 disclosed last September when Didi announced to spend some $20 million on customer service.

The hiring spree marks a moment of reckoning at Didi who had been fixated on collecting passengers and drivers while falling short in fulfilling social responsibilities attached to a tech platform. Case in point, Didi’s outsourced passenger support system was criticized for failing to act promptly on irregularities flagged by customers. Labor costs can swell, but safety measures have become a necessary business expenditure as the Chinese government call for more “social responsibilities” among private firms.

The same goes for other sorts of internet platforms like ByteDance, which runs TikTok and the popular news app Jinri Toutiao. The startup often touts itself as a “platform” distributing content to readers instead of a “publisher”. But following a series of online crackdowns ByteDance and other similar media businesses employed thousands of moderators to make sure their content is in line with laws and Beijing’s directives.

Didi claimed that it receives 300,000 calls from passengers and drivers daily, while only 1.7% of the inquiries are suspected to concern safety. It said its customer service system — which utilizes bots to solve standard questions — can react to 95% of the safety risks flagged under 30 minutes. For some context, China’s transportation regulator require safety issues to be responded within 24 hours and processed within five days, according to a set of guidelines published in 2016 to regulate the nascent industry.

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