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Uber: Limits of Control

The new transport app, Uber, has recently caused a splash in the media all over the world. The service which is operated through smart phones claims that you can “tap a button [and] get picked up in minutes.” The San Francisco based company is not a taxi provider, but an app that connects drivers and passengers, taking a 20% of the fare for the service. Since being backed by Google Ventures in 2009, Uber has spread to 128 cities in 39 countries and is currently worth US$1.8 billion, despite criticism and friction from incumbent taxi industries and regulatory bodies.

I first heard about Uber when a Facebook friend posted a link to the company’s website, sharing his excitement for the expansion to Perth in May this year. My initial reaction, as the daughter of a former taxi driver, was “I bet taxi drivers won’t be happy with this” and “how can young women trust this service and get in the car with an unlicensed stranger.” Yet the more I have researched the business, the more convinced I was by their revolutionary start up and the positive changes it could impact on the future of transport.

There are currently three levels of Uber services; UberBlack, UberX and UberTaxi. Only UberBlack, the premium service, is available in Perth, yet there are hopes to expand as it becomes more popular. UberBlack promises a luxury experience, in a black limousine driven by a commercial licensed chauffeur. UberX, the cheaper option, is the company’s answer the providing a quality transport service at a lower cost. And UberTaxi will summon an incumbent taxi driver in a licensed vehicle.

Complaints from licensed taxi drivers have come in thick and fast. The beginning of June saw Perth taxi drivers calling on the state government to regulate the new app to protect their expensive licenses, with much the same happening across the globe. Currently in Western Australia, a taxi license costs $510, 000 and prospective drivers must complete seven steps of training, police and medical checks and regulations before they are qualified. Uber’s modern approach to rideshares means almost anyone can be a driver for the smart phone app. Uber’s website for Perth, currently has invitations for drivers to join their team on the front page. While applicants must be licensed chauffeurs for the premium service, the only requirements for UberX drivers is to be at least 24 years old with comprehensive insurance and own any four door car, no more than nine years old in excellent condition. This is seen as unfair competition to licensed drivers with their bank loans and stringent training processes.

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As part of their aggressive business model, Uber changes their fare calculations during times of high activity, with reports of fares increasing as much as seven times during New Year’s Eve peaks to attract more drivers and heavy discounts are offered to those who use Uber during off peak times. Ernst and Young staff and NFL players have been instructed to use Uber rides and a number of promotion codes are available worldwide, to provide positive publicity for the company.

On the 11th of June, European taxi drivers embarked on a strike over Uber. Drivers in major European cities like London, Paris, Berlin and Madrid refused to accept passengers and created road blocks around major landmarks, tourist attractions and motorways to slow and disrupt traffic. Yet this lead to an 850% increase in sign ups to the app on the day of the strike. It is fair enough that disillusioned drivers wish to draw attention to their plight but they clearly need to come up with a better, more efficient way of protesting.

So why are people drawn to Uber? Warren, an ex taxi driver in Perth, thinks Uber is a good and revolutionary service. He has been dissatisfied with the way the Perth taxi industry is heading, with unreliable pick up times, increased fares and decreased standards and he thinks Uber’s peer reviewed system is a reliable way to provide safe drivers. Which brings me back to one of my initial queries with the business, regarding the safety of accepting a ride from an unlicensed stranger. As a young woman, I feel comfortable getting in to a taxi late at night knowing that the camera and driver’s registration number are in place as a deterrent for negative behaviour. However, unfortunately these government enforced safety procedures are not enough to protect passengers as assaults still occur.

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With Uber, while there would be no display of ID and security cameras to ensure my safety, the power of my review at the end of the trip could be enough to lower the driver’s rating and prevent other passengers from choosing them as a driver immediately after I left my one star review. Much like online stores such as eBay and Etsy, or even the accommodation sites like CouchSurfing and AirBnB, an account holder becomes trust worthy to customers with a slew of positive reviews from their peers. One of Uber’s restrictions is that drivers are not allowed to accept cash tips (especially as all payments are exchanged through the app using PayPal, no cash changes hands of driver and passenger) and instead ask their passengers to leave them a positive review, to ensure more business and gain the trust of prospective passengers.

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The peer reviewed system works to the advantage of both customers and drivers providing a good service. The customer can feel confident choosing a driver with only positive reviews, and the good drivers have an advantage over others as they will be rewarded with more passengers choosing their service. Good drivers should be in favour of this system as it increases demand for their quality service rather than allowing those who throw their position or cheat the system to gain more customers, as is the case in the taxi industry.

Peter, a current Perth taxi driver is one to join the protests against Uber’s inception in Perth believing it to “libertarian wank.” He went on to explain “to think all the supervisory functions of the state have not grown up in response to events in the taxi industry, it shows a level of immaturity that is a bit amazing…people are eager to get out and make a few extra bucks moving the neighbours around? Really? It hasn’t become a job taken up by recent migrants for no reason.” While I think there is some truth in what Peter is saying, the Australian Financial Review projected the potential long term future of this Google backed revolutionary company.

Google’s interest in Uber is directly linked  to their development of the driver-less car. Imagine ordering a taxi through an app, whose location you can track as it shows up in your driveway. With no driver the risk of assault is eradicated and computer controlled system means there is less chance of road accidents, and the most efficient use of traffic control will be used. On road costs would be significantly reduced, with no need for drivers, traffic lights or speed cameras. The fare would reflect this making the need for private cars and public transport obsolete. There would no longer be a need for petrol stations or parking lots, making cities more compact, greener and productive with the same amount of space.

While its easy to get carried away with visions of the future where we interact harmoniously with our robot neighbours and live in a society whose priorities become about being green and efficient rather than repressed by existing regulations and oil companies, there is a long way before Uber is widely accepted. This is the kind of social, technological and economic change that happens over decades but needs to be met with open minds and enthusiasm for change and innovation that only a company like Google can do. I for one, am looking forward to watching Uber expand and hopefully become a part of every day life.

Sian Sugars is a journalist and Flint contributor, based in Perth, Australia.

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