Uber's newest journey is into music playlists, headlines and food reviews for its passengers
Uber Technologies had an epiphany after dropping off its one billionth passenger over Christmas: People are spending a lot of time in its cars. Why not help passengers enjoy themselves or get stuff done?
So the ride-hailing company is introducing a new feature, called Trip Experiences, that will allow third-party developers to send customised notifications and content to riders during their trip, if the passengers have given their permission.
In a blog post this week Uber said it's the biggest update to their application program interface since the release of the Ride Request service in March.
Some examples of what Trip Experiences could offer include a music playlist timed for the length of the ride, a five-minute news update, reviews of a restaurant you're about to visit or a reminder to turn on the heat when you're on your way home.
Uber, valued at $62.5bn and operating in more than 300 cities, is trying to expand beyond just being a global car service.
And as Uber faces price wars with Lyft and other rivals around the world, the company is looking to offer features that its competitors don't have.
Uber has tested food and package delivery in some cities, and is working on new technology including self-driving cars.
It hopes to integrate with as many third-party apps as possible and cites deals with United Airlines, StubHub and Facebook's Messenger as ways that Uber has made it convenient for people to book a ride while doing something else.
While Uber's stated mission with Trip Experiences is to "help make life simpler and easier for people to get around", it could also be an opportunity for advertising to a captive market.
"I think it's really important that this is an opt-in feature for users because Uber is trying to walk that fine line of monetising their growing user base while not alienating that user base," said Paul Sweeney, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence.
Uber recognises that passengers may be irritated by being targeted for ads so users can turn off the feature at any time.
In its tutorial to developers, Uber discourages apps from spamming passengers. "We know that people's time is precious and sometimes passengers just want to sit back and relax in peace," Chris Saad, Uber's head of product and developer platform, said in the blog post announcing the feature. "So users will be in complete control."
Meanwhile, Uber's China division has raised financing that values that part of the company's operation at $7bn, said Travis Kalanick, Uber's chief executive officer.
Backers of Uber China include HNA Group, operator of China's fourth-largest airline; China Taiping Insurance Holdings; Guangzhou Automobile Group; China Life Insurance, the nation's largest insurer; and Citic Securities, a Chinese investment bank. Uber has been looking for a person to run its Chinese operation for months but has yet to name someone. Liu Zhen, who reports to Kalanick, will continue to run the business in the meantime.
Uber is bumping up against local competitors around the world.
Nowhere is the competition more fierce than in China, where Uber faces Didi Kuaidi. The company is backed by Alibaba and Tencent, the country's two most valuable technology companies.
Uber and Didi Kuaidi are each spending aggressively to expand, partly by subsidising the costs of rides. In a letter to investors in 2015, Kalanick committed to spending $1bn that year in China. It may have surpassed that figure.
Didi Kuaidi said this week that it completed 1.43bn trips in 2015.
Uber said it increased its share of the private car market in China to 30pc or 35pc as of the end of 2015, from 1pc in January 2015. Didi Kuaidi said it holds 87.2 pc of China's private car-hailing market, attributing the figure to a Chinese research firm. (Bloomberg)