news US-based personal transport startup Uber has started testing its service in Sydney, encouraging Sydneysiders to download its mobile application and start requesting rides instead of using existing taxi services.
The company’s model – which sees it connect luxury vehicles with passengers through a mobile app, has caused chaos in the taxi and personal transportation industries in a number of major US cities, starting in San Francisco in 2010. It has since started expanding internationally, adding cities such as Vancouver and Toronto in Canada and Paris in France.
In several cities, Uber has been accused of breaching local taxi regulations, and has been forced to fight a series of running battles with city administration in order to continue operating. For example, in Washington in January this year, an Uber driver’s cab was impounded as part of a sting operation by the city’s taxicab regulator, which had alleged Uber was operating an unlicensed taxi service. Similar issues have been raised in San Francisco, Massachusetts, Chicago and more.
In a post on Uber’s company blog today, the company revealed it had kicked off what it described as a “super secret stealth scenario” in Sydney, with the first ride locally being taken by the Sydney dance band Art vs. Science. “It’s a Friday morning in Sydney, and summer may be around the corner, but the taxis definitely aren’t,” Uber wrote.
“Stranded in the east trying to get to their recording session, the boys hit up their Uber app. Straight away, a black Caprice rolled up, driven by seasoned professional William. In that portentous moment of glory and explosiveness, Art vs. Science was crowned Uber Sydney’s “Rider Zero”. So begins Uber’s super secret stealth scenario starring Sydneysiders!” The company dubbed its Sydney service its “First Fleet”, and said it was currently testing the model locally, warning customers it was “bound to hit some snags”. “Over the coming weeks, we’ll be tinkering with our pricing, placement, and positioning,” it wrote.
“While we’re in “test mode,” you can request an Uber, but be aware that availability will be limited until our official launch. If you’re one of the lucky few that’s able to grab an Uber, make sure you shoot us heaps of feedback on your experience so that we can make our Sydney launch hotter than this summer’s going to be. You can chat with us at email@example.com or chuck us a tweet @Uber_Sydney. Heads up nUbers, this is strictly for Adventurous Riders Only!” An anonymous tip to Delimiter this morning suggested Sydney users use the code “sydneystealth” when booking through Uber.
Uber is not the first company to attempt to reform the Australian taxi industry, which, like the US equivalent, is highly regulated. In January this year, for example, a 19-year-old Australian developer, Zac Altman successfully launched an online service for taxi users in Australia focusing on mobile bookings.
According to a statement issued by Altman’s company, Taxi Pro, this week, the developer learnt iPhone development in his free time in high school. Taxi Pro was conceived and developed by him while he was in his final year. He was then awarded a scholarship to the University of technology Sydney. His iPhone application attracted over 40,000 users even before it was formally advertised, predominantly by word of mouth.
Taxi Pro released its Android application on 17 December 2011. This won Altman the second place in the Optus’ Unleash Your App competition that invited entries from all over the country. The prize included $1000 in cash and a Samsung Galaxy S II Android smartphone. Apple has featured the application a number of times and it is very popular because of its simplicity. Users in Sydney can book a taxi within 5 seconds, making it one of Sydney’s fastest and most simple taxi booking service. At the time, Taxi Pro supported taxi networks in places like Sydney and Adelaide but not in Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane. Efforts are on to cover all these cities and more.
The service allows users to make their bookings through various cab networks like Premier Cabs, Taxis Combined and Legion Cabs, seeing its main competitor as CabCharge. This is the largest taxi conglomerate whose services extend internationally to Singapore.
TechCrunch wrote about Uber in August 2010: “If you live in San Francisco and you haven’t tried UberCab yet, do it. The service, which we first covered in July, eliminates everything bad about a taxi experience … When I tried UberCab a few days ago I had to wait just 5 minutes for the car to arrive (a big Mercedes), and the overall experience was way better than a taxi.”
Could Uber disrupt the Sydney taxi market — hell, even the Australian taxi market as a whole? God, I hope so. I hope so soooooo much. Let me explain why.
As a small business owner and a journalist, I am a frequent user of taxis. I catch taxis at minimum around Sydney 3-4 times a week, and sometimes more. The reason I do this is that it’s much more convenient than driving myself, given that I’m always hopping around Sydney’s inner suburbs to meetings in places where there is no parking, and that I am also a shocking driver who would be almost guaranteed to crash my car into something or other at least once a month. So I catch taxis and other forms of public transport instead.
Over the past few years, I’ve learnt to avoid Legion cabs (because they’re universally shocking, in terms of driver skills and the actual cleanliness of the car), and if I’m booking a taxi or if I can find one, I always prefer Silver Service, because the car is guaranteed to be clean and the driver professional. I’m probably one of Silver Service’s most loyal customers. I will catch other taxis if I have to, but I prefer Silver Service, because it’s just better.
But even so, there are problems. Sometimes when I book online, Silver Service cabs simply never turn up. Sometimes you get a shitty lesser brand instead. And it’s always hard, when you’re just trying to flag someone down, to know what you’re going to get. In addition, Silver Service doesn’t give you any ongoing rewards for using their service regularly.
Uber turns all of this on its head. You want a trip somewhere? Hit the book button on your smartphone app, and an Uber car will likely turn up very shortly; clean, billed through your smartphone, with a professional driver and none of the usual taxi crap. As TechCrunch wrote, using Uber takes all the crappy taxi crap out of using the crappy taxi system. And that’s exactly what I am looking for.
Of course, it’s practically a fait accompli that Uber will run up against the same taxi regulatory nightmares in Australia, especially in Sydney, as it has overseas. The Sydney taxi scene, is notoriously regulated heavily and run by a very small number of highly predatory companies. Ask any taxi driver how it works. They’ll tell you just getting a set of ‘plates’ is a nightmare, and forget trying to be an independent, or, even worse, trying to introduce a better service, such as electric taxis or even just anything which isn’t the standard Ford or Holden model.
Please, Uber, please. PLEASE. Come and disrupt Australia’s shitty, shitty, SHITTY taxi industry. Hire a bunch of lawyers and fight your way into this scene. We need you desperately, and I couldn’t be more happy that the company is expanding into Australia. As a frequent user of this kind of transport, I will support you to the utmost of my ability :)