Grab's priority for 2019 - safety and service quality

Come next year, Grab will invest "tens of millions of dollars" into boosting its safety features, according to the firm's head of regional operations Russell Cohen.

A lot of the safety technology will revolve around areas such as the verification of driver identities, driving down crime, and reducing fraudulent bookings and fake rides.

"We'll be hiring lots of new engineers and on-the-ground safety people to make sure that Grab is the safest transport option for people in South-east Asia when they want to book a ride," said Mr Cohen.

He was speaking to The Business Times after a joint media event with Toyota Motor last week.

Mr Cohen highlighted safety and service quality as key areas that the company will focus on for the upcoming year.

He said there are many pain points for the firm concerning safety issues, and gave an example of how Grab had invested millions of dollars in a technology that masks mobile numbers on the app so that the incidence of harassment and unwanted post-ride contact would be reduced.

When the feature was rolled out in Jakarta on Nov 1, the reported cases of phone harassment between driver and passenger fell by 70 per cent in four weeks, according to Grab.

When it comes to quality, Mr Cohen said the idea was to focus on enhancing the experience of users, drivers and merchants.

In Singapore, for instance, Grab is planning to roll out an Electronic Road Pricing calculator that would automatically add ERP charges to the ride fare, Grab's Singapore head Lim Kell Jay told reporters during a media luncheon earlier this month.

The feature was requested by about 40 per cent of Grab drivers as some of them would, at times, forget to key in the additional fees at the end of the trip.

NEW SERVICES

The firm will trial a new pet service and point-to-point transport with larger vehicles in the coming months. It will also work on improving its map accuracy - more than 5,000 pick-up locations were added in Singapore this year, said Mr Lim.

Grab has come a long way since it received early backing from Vertex Ventures and GGV Capital. Its ongoing more-than-US$2.65 billion (S$3.6 billion) Series H round features industry heavyweights such as Microsoft, Toyota Motor and Booking Holdings.

The firm ramped up its Super App game this year by expanding into a number of key verticals. It launched financial services arm Grab Financial in March, a food delivery service in May, and a venture arm in June, among others.

Grab is already profitable in some of its key verticals in the more mature markets and expects to double its revenue to US$2 billion next year.

Mr Cohen said the firm has a huge appetite for growth for its food delivery business.

"Food's a big part of our growth plans for 2019. We will be expanding our GrabFood and delivery business and deepening our relationships with restaurant merchants and our key partners in some markets," he said.

The company has been exploring various food business concepts for each of its markets.

In Singapore, it is wooing users with local favourites such as durian, as well as Jenny Bakery cookies from Hong Kong. It has also been rolling out $1 deals featuring bubble tea and McDonald's chicken nuggets, among others.

Asked how these methods are sustainable for the business, Mr Lim said merchants are increasingly bearing the cost of the promotions after seeing an improvement in their business.

One merchant, for instance, now derives about 30 per cent of its revenue from GrabFood, he claimed.

In other markets, the company is likewise adopting a localised approach. The team in Vietnam has partnered famous chefs to come up with menu choices exclusive to GrabFood.

In Indonesia, Grab launched a central kitchen concept where popular merchants outside of Jakarta are brought in to one location to prepare food, reducing delivery times and expanding their reach.

While expanding its food business, the firm will also be looking at maximising the use of its assets. Mr Cohen said markets such as Indonesia and Vietnam, where Grab has a motorcycle-hailing business, represent a good foundation on which to build its food and parcel delivery arm. The company is tapping the motorcycle fleet so that the same people who are ferrying passengers around are also delivering food and parcels.

Though the firm is powering ahead for next year, there are some loose ends to tie up from this year. The tumultuous ride for the Singapore-based unicorn peaked in March when Grab announced it was acquiring Uber's South-east Asia operations after a drawn-out battle.

It was a major win for the regional player against a United States-based giant, though the repercussions of the merger followed soon after in the form of a fine and remedies imposed by the Competition and Consumer Commission of Singapore (CCCS).

Grab has stood by its belief that CCCS took a "very narrow approach in defining competition". But the firm got a slap on the wrist from the Philippine authorities, too, which ordered it to pay 12 million pesos (S$312,000) in fines.

Meanwhile, in Vietnam, the country's competition watchdog decided earlier this month that the merger may have infringed antitrust laws on two counts.

The Malaysian authorities said in July that it was reviewing the merger, though there have been no updates since.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 24, 2018, with the headline 'Grab's priority for 2019 - safety and service quality'. Print Edition | Subscribe