With taxi apps and the likes of Uber and Careem increasingly parts of our daily lives, those among us who navigate the UAE's highways and byways without their own car are no strangers to relying on their phones to secure transport at the tap of a touchscreen.
But ekar and Udrive are two services in Dubai that are bridging the huge gap between somebody else taking the wheel for you and buying or renting a car to pilot yourself on a permanent basis.
The short-term car-rental apps are a relatively new concept for this country, and one that may take the average motorist a little while to get their head around. The basic equation is pretty simple, though: choose your app, download it, register, then find a car to rent via a GPS-enabled in-app map.
I am testing the duo of motoring innovations, with just one rule: the whole transaction has to be done without any special journalist-shaped treatment from ekar or Udrive; I will use the app like any other customer to try out the ease – or otherwise – of the two offerings.
While registering, ekar’s app proves a little clunky – if you go back from the second page, for example, you lose everything entered on the first page. These are the kind of tech gremlins that could cause less-patient users to chuck in the idea before they have barely started.
With both ekar and Udrive, you enter your personal details, including driving-license information, take a selfie with your ID and upload that and pictures of your driving license and Emirates ID (both front and back). Udrive differs slightly in that you can use your passport instead of Emirates ID, should you prefer. Once you have input payment details, your credit card will be charged a Dh1 sign-up fee, then you are ready to go.
The two companies’ in-app interfaces to find a rental are so similar in layout and colour schemes that you would be hard-pressed to tell them apart with logos removed – although for those who care about what they are driving, Udrive wins out, with more easily accessible manufacturer and model low-downs.
Its triumvirate of available models are the Peugeot 208, Nissan Tiida and Toyota Yaris – good news for anybody who is, like me, entirely averse to going anywhere near those two Japanese superminis for fear of slow-speed death on the highways.
The Tiida is the only option available with ekar, however, with all of said model’s usual shopping-trolley-with-a-broken-wheel acceleration and handling. The Peugeot I pick via Udrive isn’t especially rewarding to drive, either, but it is comfortably the pick of the pair.
The cars are spread out in locations across the city, largely clustered around the linear trunk that is Sheikh Zayed Road, which is handy if you are using the Metro to reach a rental. They are parked by the previous customer, and meter charges are all covered, so long as you use RTA parking zones A, B, C or D, where you in turn leave the car when your rental ends. Refuelling is similarly simple – the cars are registered with petrol stations, so you don't need to fork out any cash to fill up on unleaded, which is already factored into the rental price.
The main difference between regular car-rental companies and this new generation is that other humans are largely not required here. Once you have instantly reserved your vehicle after locating the nearest car to you, on arrival, you unlock it using the app, then punch in a pre-designated pin number to a keypad in the glovebox, which releases the ignition key.
Much like regular rentals, it is your responsibilities to notice any pre-existing damage and report any you cause; if you are in an accident, you call the police as you would while driving any other car.
In my ekar, however, the lack of human contact is shattered after I enter my pin code incorrectly, which leaves me locked out of the system (although thankfully not the car itself). Unable to start the car and sweating like a sumo wrestler in a sauna, I’m forced to phone ekar’s call centre to have a helpful operator reset the keypad.
Judging by the app images, both fleets are seemingly resplendent in green liveries, but in reality, my ekar is a washed-out greyer shade. Subtler, perhaps, if you are less than keen to let everybody else on the road know you are in a rental, but not as happily vibrant as Udrive’s garden-pea tones.
A top tip for when the rental ends: make sure you have all your personal belongings before closing the car door for the final time, because if you don't, the automatic locking will necessitate phoning the call centre to regain access inside the vehicle.
Verdict? There is not much difference between the two services in terms of their respective rates, which include fuel and insurance, but exclude Salik fees and any penalty charges.
ekar is Dh7.50 for a 15-minute rental or Dh30 per hour (a confusing twin choice considering the per-minute rate works out as identical); Udrive is 50 fils per minute, which you may have spotted is the exact same as its competitor when scaled up. Both services have a maximum rental time of six hours.
But a few crucial points push the plaudits towards Udrive. Its by-minute billing increments, rather than ekar’s chosen quarter-hour or hour blocks, make it much better for what we shall call “micro-rentals” – perhaps popping to the supermarket for a pint of laban – without any wasted unused minutes. And Udrive’s choice of cars is another big boon compared to ekar’s one-model regular fleet. The latter also has a 200-kilometre limit per trip, while the former has no such restrictions. All of which adds up to a super-affordable way to get around Dubai, without the excessive upfront outlays associated with regular rentals or buying a car.