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Here’s how Uber and Brazil’s own 99 prepared to compete at the Rio Olympics

Language barriers shouldn’t be an issue — so long as you speak English.

An Olympic traffic lane is seen ahead of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Ryan Pierse / Getty

New Year’s Eve, Halloween and sometimes even Saturday nights — ride-hail companies often spend a great deal of time preparing for high-volume events like these to ensure that there is maximum efficiency and fewer post-New Year’s Eve “horror stories” about a more than $300 Uber ride due to surge pricing.

The 2016 Olympics in Rio is no exception. With an estimated crowd of more than 75,000 in attendance for the opening ceremony alone — and with a week to go until the Aug. 21 closing ceremony — demand for transportation is through the roof.

Brazil has its own homegrown ride-hail company called 99 (formerly 99Taxis), but in Rio the company only operates traditional taxis. During the Olympics, 99 has said that it has seen a fourfold increase over its average demand for rides..

99’s competitor, Uber — the only global ride-hail player — wouldn’t provide any specific numbers, but considering that Brazil’s Institute of Tourism estimated that between 350,000 to 500,000 tourists would fly into Rio for the games, it stands to reason that the company expected a huge surge in demand, at the very least.

In preparation for the games and the corresponding influx of foreigners, Uber and 99 both had to solve for a few things, including price, efficiency, convenience and language barriers.

Here’s how the two ride-hail companies prepared to compete in their version of the Olympics:


Mexico is the third-largest market in the world for Uber, but Brazil is the fastest-growing market in Latin America. On April 4, the company said it planned to add 50,000 new drivers by the end of this year. So, getting the Olympics right is important for the company.

Uber, which published a blog post with a list of tips for its Rio users, started its Olympics prep by setting up designated pickup locations at important points of interest, including the the Santos Dumont Airport, the Olympic park, etc. To further maximize for efficiency, the company even set up a separate designated pickup zone for UberPool rides so riders heading in the same direction could easily and quickly board the vehicle.

“When riding to and from specific sporting venues, you can enjoy the convenience of a designated Uber pickup and drop-off area to avoid confusion about where to meet your driver,” a company blog post said.

Aside from ensuring that its users were aware of all the services that Uber provided in Rio — such as the in-app fare-estimate feature — Uber also partnered with a company called iPass to allow its users to connect to free Wi-Fi. While that may seem trivial, international data plans can often charge exorbitant overage fees.

At Santa Dumont Airport, the company also offered a service called UberEnglish, where riders are matched with an UberX or UberBlack driver who speaks English. The drivers are certified by the free language-learning software Duolingo. Additionally, given that the company has customer support agents from 70 countries around the world, riders will be able to request assistance from someone who speaks the same language.


99, which is backed by Tiger Global and Qualcomm, among others, started as an on-demand taxi platform, and in some parts of Brazil, like Rio, is still just that. But in other parts of Brazil, the company offers commercial black-car services; on August 1, it launched an UberX-like peer-to-peer service called Pop in Sao Paulo.

In Rio, 99’s service is limited to on-demand taxis, which certainly has its disadvantages. For one, riders looking for a luxury service are out of options. And price can also be an issue: Taxi fares are metered, and are based on base and per-minute and per-mile fares typically set by local municipalities. While Brazilian cabs are largely cheaper than cabs in many other countries, Uber has managed to undercut those prices by 35 percent.

Proprietary heatmap of 99 ride hails at the time of the the Olympics opening ceremony

Just in time for the Olympics, 99 rolled out what it calls “discount mode.” Essentially, drivers are given the option to turn on this feature and automatically take 20 percent off of each fare. So whenever a passenger opens the app, if there is a driver in discount mode close to them, they will be automatically matched with that driver.

“What we’ve seen is, since Brazil is in the worst economic recession in decades, drivers totally understand what’s going on,” Peter Fernandez, the chief product officer of 99, told Recode. “Since we launched, 85 percent of the time discount taxis are available. What that means is we’re getting a whole new influx of users, and taxi drivers are getting proportionally more rides.”

It’s not a promotional effort, Fernandez insists, and the company will continue to offer this feature. Since drivers are getting more rides, it won’t affect the long-term sustainability of the company, particularly because drivers pay 99 a standard fee per ride. In fact, if it continues to be successful, the company is considering making the discount higher than 20 percent.

That discount — though it still makes an average taxi fare 15 percent more expensive than UberX — may go a long way, considering one prime advantage that taxis have: Unlike Uber, taxis can use the bus lanes. Given the traffic conditions in Brazil, that’s significant. A three-hour drive to the airport could take an hour and a half using bus lanes, Fernandez said.

In the time since the company has rolled out discount mode, 99 has seen 50,000 “churned” users — or users who had stopped using the service — use its service again, without any marketing or outreach.

But the company also prepared its drivers for efficiency and how to handle English-speaking passengers. On the efficiency end, 99 partnered with Waze to provide real-time event and traffic information to its drivers. On the language side, 99 partnered with Google to train more than 1,000 of its 24,000 drivers on how to use Google Translate.

According to Fernandez, typically only elite and/or highly educated Brazilians speak English. But being able to use Google Translate helps riders and passengers communicate in any language.

Some 700 of those drivers received voice-recognition wristbands from Google that passengers or drivers could speak into to translate what they were saying. Fernandez, who used to work at Google, said that Google’s marketing team was keen on making Google Translate a big part of the Olympics, and was partnering with different hotels and other businesses to make that possible.

With Brazil’s economy in turmoil, Fernandez said he’s seeing an influx of new drivers. And while the Olympics are in town, there’s certainly no shortage of demand. But tourists eventually leave, and demand may soon falter, and what worked for the Olympics may not be as successful without it.

Read this next: Meet the companies trying to dominate the Latin American ride-hail industry — and edge out Uber

This article originally appeared on

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