U-Day

U-Day

Switched on and plugged in
Switched on and plugged in

For Uber, launching in a new city must be like Starbucks opening a new coffeeshop. They’ve done it hundreds of times before. They know how to work the media, how to offer swag and codes for free rides, how to get the thing happening.
I was at the War Memorial yesterday when the call came. “Would you like to be at the Canberra launch tomorrow? Maybe answer a few questions from journalists?”
Of course I would. See how the thing was done, get to watch the performers. Uber’s general manager in Australia, the ACT Chief Minister and a host of media people. Maybe I’d get a few shots of cars and celebrities.
I’ve seen media conferences before. This one was notable for the cool Uber staffers in t-shirts, sunnies, logo caps, and smartphones welded to their hands.
These children of the Nineties are nonchalant and confident. They have the future in their hands, they are surfing the waves of trending tweets, they are taking the ride to the future.
For this old cabbie, well into his seventh decade, it looks like the 21st century is moving into cyberspace. Passengers and cabs, meters and streets, money clips and making change; all old hat. The future has less “stuff” in it, fewer things to lay hands on, more intangibles, more cloud, more dreams.
The cars, the drivers, the passengers are physical. Getting people from A to B, that doesn’t change. The taxi ranks, the call centres taking bookings, the money – all gone. All somewhere nebulous. Maybe in all those smartphones, maybe in some bank of servers in North Dakota.
This is history being made before my eyes. Canberra is the first capital city in the world to legalise Uber. Now part of the landscape, not just some nuisance thumbing its nose at the law. Maybe in other cities in other places, they’ve held press conferences with heads of government. But they’ve been denouncing Uber as unregulated, illegal, unsafe.
Here, open arms. No sense in trying to stem the flowing tide, I guess. Canberra is aiming for a level playing field, consistent with safety and efficiency. The existing taxi industry will have to move to match Uber. You’d think, with the advantage of a significant local presence stretching back generations, they’d have the game sewn up, and a few blow-ins from San Francisco wouldn’t get a look in.
But no. The taxi industry, mostly old fogeys like myself, would like to see change kept to a minimum. Maybe wind the clock back a bit.
Hah. Fat chance.

Uber’s real business

Uber’s real business

Shortly after applying and for the month or two after, I worked out that Uber wasn’t really interested in ride-sharing. Sure, they might be a $US50 billion business out of that, but behind the scenes…
I uploaded all my usual details, name, email, phone, photo, date of birth and so on. Scans of my drivers licence and passport. Car registration and insurance documents.
I went to an information session, taking copies of all documents. They were photographed and they made me sign so the signature on my drivers licence could be verified. Next step of the process involved fresh uploads of my identity and car documents. And two days ago, I had to upload yet another copy of my car rego.
There were also specific forms I had to fill in and sign concerning criminal and driving record checks.
All this paperwork was to satisfy the ACT government that Uber was only allowing reliable, verified, safe drivers onto the system. It also counters the repeated line pushed by the taxi industry that taxidrivers are safe, but you don’t know who you’re getting with a ride-sharing app.
Apart from the fact that existing taxi drivers and Uber drivers are pretty much exactly the same people, Uber has gone to a lot of effort and expense to ensure its drivers are identified and checked every step of the way. When I went through the certification process for my taxidriver licence, I had to pay my own police checks. Uber has picked up the tab for that, and with a reported three thousand applicants, that cannot have been cheap!
And, final step is the clincher. So that I could be paid, I had to give them my bank details today.
So, I’m pretty sure I know what racket Uber is really up to.
Identity theft. That has to be the game.

Take my ID!
Take my ID!
Only a small change, really

Only a small change, really

Loose change
Loose change

Uber doesn’t always tell the whole truth. Let’s be upfront about that. I quickly worked out that the internet is full of blogs and chatrooms, all saying much the same thing. Being an Uber driver isn’t as lucrative as Uber makes it sound.
They might quote specific figures for hourly rates in specific cities and I have no reason to disbelieve them.
To start with, Uber takes 20% straight off the top. Last night, as the Uber launch enters its countdown, I learnt that in Canberra, Uber will take 25% off here.
Then there’s GST. That’s another 9% off the payments. I’m not sure if that’s before or after Uber takes its cut, but either way that’s 32 cents out of every dollar. Possibly more if they both hit the total fare before I see it.
Then there’s petrol and cleaning. I can’t abide driving a dirty cab, and a nightly wash and vacuum is going to cost me $15 a throw. Plus my own time for polishing the windows, cleaning the insides of the door frames, dusting the dashboard.
Maintenance is bound to increase. Drive a car twice as much, the service intervals come twice as fast. Tyres wear out twice as fast. Oils, filters and all the rest of it. The more I drive, the more I have to pay, just for normal maintenance. That’s all coming out of my pocket.
Depreciation rears its ugly head. But it’s your own car, and it’s depreciating whether you use it or not, I hear you say. Sure it is, but if when I sell the car after ten years or whatever, if it’s got a million kilometres on the odometer, it’s not going to fetch as much as a car with substantially less. Like the normal amount.
Driving more means more chance of accidents and breakdowns. I had a pretty near perfect accident record for the decades before I became a cabbie, but in five years of cabbing I hit two kangaroos, a tree, two other cars, had three run into me, and any number of close shaves. No injuries – apart from the roos – but still…
Then there’s the insurance. Sure, Uber has its own insurance, but I’m betting that once my insurance company knows I’m an Uber driver, my rates will go up. Perhaps not as high as taxi insurance, which is typically about ten times the normal rate (for cars driving ten times as much as a normal car), but I can’t see insurance costing the same for long.
I’ll have to pay increased licence, medical, and training costs under the ACT’s new laws starting next year.
Plus income tax on what’s left over.
It all adds up. I don’t think I’ll be going backwards, but I’m going to have to do my sums. I’d like to buy a new car to be a bigger and better vehicle for passengers than my little Golf, but I’m going to have to do my sums very carefully once the figures come in.
And then there’s the cost of water and mints. Not obligatory, no, but I’ll go that route and I doubt it will cost me only two cents a passenger, as the Uber rep suggested.
All told, this is not the road to riches. Then again, I don’t need riches. Enough for a round-the-world trip each year, that’s my aim.
And a bunch of smiles from happy passengers. There’s the real wealth.

Uber? What the &%$# is Uber?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Uber, when you get down to it, is an app. Without that little bit of software running on millions of smartphones, there would be no multi-billion dollar business and no millions of Uber rides each day in cities around the world.
The essence of Uber is that a person needing transport uses the app to signal his need at the same time a driver uses another app to signal the availability of he and his private car to provide transport. The app links the two.
It is the logical next step from the traditional taxicab. I used to joke to my taxi passengers that eventually some smart cookie would link the cruise control to the GPS, the meter, and the credit card reader, and my job would vanish.
Uber (and Google and Apple) is heading down that road of self-driving electric cars. One day, it will be cheaper and more convenient for many people to sell their personal cars and just use shared cars. If you think about the total cost of ownership, with drivers licence, registration, petrol, maintenance, insurance and the hidden cost of a garage to house your ride, that day may be tomorrow.
Uber (and Lyft and Sidecar etc.) are changing the world.
My first experience with Uber came in Sydney. Qantas had invited me, along with a few dozen other frequent flyers, to lunch at Rockpool in Sydney. Free flights included. It’s a great bargain for them. They get their best and cheapest customers sozzled, and find out where all the loopholes are. Anyway, after one of these events, there were four of us in a hurry to get back to the airport, where Qantas had promised us entry into their exclusive Chairmans Lounge while awaiting our free flights home.
“Let’s Uber there!” one mellow fellow said, and he showed us how the car could be tracked right down to its sparkling arrival in front of us, where a besuited driver opened the doors of a limousine and sped us off to the land of pre-flight champagne.
As a Silver Service driver myself, I could see the possibilities, and when Uber announced its intention to operate in Canberra, it was really a foregone conclusion that I would put my name down.

Death to Cabbies!

Uber DL 001

The bulk of the audience at last night’s government information meeting was made up of taxi operators. Operators are usually not taxi drivers, though they might take the occasional shift. They own the cab (or more usually cabs) and either own the taxi plate or lease it.
One chap pretty well dominated the meeting. He had been in the industry for decades, by the look of him, and he reckoned he’d done his sums.
“There’s a 5% drop in taxi fares, 15% more taxis you’re putting onto the roads, and now Uber will have 30% of the market,” he said. “That’s a fifty percent drop in the taxidriver’s income right there.”
I thought about this. I could quibble with the figures a little, and I wasn’t sure that it worked out to cabbies earning half wages, even if the numbers seemed to add up that way. The 5% drop in fares looked to be solid, but even if the government made 15% more taxi licences available, that didn’t mean that they would be taken up. Uber would certainly be taking a chunk of the market, but it might well carve out a considerable market of its own amongst the smartphone generation, judging by what had happened in other cities.
All in all, if cab fares work out to be 5% cheaper, and UberX fares another 10% cheaper still, then it might well be that the overall passenger market will increase.
But this chap was on a roll. He was on a roll for pretty much the whole two hours, actually. He reckoned that cabbies wouldn’t want to work for half the already miserable income, and that if Uber entered the market, that would see cabbies forced off the road completely.
I’ve attended a few of Uber’s public meetings, where they explain the concept to prospective drivers, take names and copies of documents, and show a video or two. 90% of the audience were cabbies, in my estimation. Now, I don’t know every cabbie in Canberra, but there’s a certain demographic nowadays. Young men, born overseas, east of Turkey and west of Singapore.
After those meetings, the cab ranks outside seemed more like a social club than a battlefield. I think I’m on firm ground in describing the two sets of existing taxi drivers and prospective Uber drivers as mostly intersecting. Let’s just say that it’s not local Canberrans who are itching to drive for Uber.
I’m guessing that the average cabbie doesn’t see Uber as a major threat to his income. There’s always going to be a certain passenger market. People without cars, people having had a few drinks, tourists, the disabled and so on. Those people aren’t going to disappear. If anything, there are likely to be more of them if overall fares come down.
And there’s going to be drivers to drive them around, whether in a cab, or in their own cars. Let’s face it, driving a cab isn’t exactly rocket science, especially in the age of GPS. It’s easy money and not a lot of work.
Now, I can understand the frustration of those owning cabs. As one put it, a cab costs $60 000 annually, just sitting in the garage. Licence fees, equipment, depreciation, insurance, inspection, service fees (to the taxi companies who supply radio bookings) – it all adds up, and any drop in profit could well make the whole deal run at a loss. The owner splits the fares with the driver 50/50, so a cab has to earn $120 000 a year – or well over $2 000 a week – before there’s a single cent of profit.
Owners will have to figure out ways of handling the new rules, that’s really the bottom line. Maybe they’ll just strip the cab of its equipment, stop paying the taxi insurance, licence fees, and service fees, and hire it out as an Uber vehicle. Maybe they’ll become a rideshare operator themselves.
But the playing field is changing, that’s for sure.

A job I loved

I spent five years as a night cabbie in Canberra. Best job I ever had.
Sure, there’d be the odd rowdy drunk. And the occasional kangaroo. But I missed most of the roos, and the drunks were mostly happy.
I found that people were usually pretty good. After a while, I learnt how to give my passengers what they wanted, and it became common for the first words in a taxi conversation to be, “Wow, this is the cleanest cab I’ve ever been in!”
People hire a cab – often a fairly pricey business in Canberra, with its hefty flagfall, spread-out suburbs, and out of hours rates – because they need to get somewhere, they can’t drive, and the regular transport won’t serve. Tourists, drunks, housewives getting the shopping home, folk in wheelchairs, whatever. I never knew who would open the door and sit down beside me, but I knew they wanted one thing. To go somewhere in safety, comfort and convenience.
After a while the money stopped being so important. I aimed for every trip to end with a smile. I’d encourage passengers to plug in their music, I’d carry groceries up the steps for pensioners, I’d treat couples heading out for dinner like royalty, opening the door for the lady, touching my cap and observing that it wasn’t every day I got to drive a princess to the ball.
I tried to play music for the passenger. The cab had a six-stacker CD, and I had a selection of playlists on my phone. Mozart for businessmen racing to catch a flight, ABBA for women of a certain age, childrens songs if there were kids, Michael Jackson if they were teenagers. After the sun went down I’d play Miles Davis. Or The Grateful Dead.
Sometimes I’d worry a bit about picking up from the nightclub rank after midnight. A tall guy with tatts and a beard would get in and I’d kind of gulp a bit, but we might have the most amazing conversation about jazz, or human rights, or the merits of single malts.
I loved it. Felt I was doing something useful in the community. Getting drunks home, political staffers to their flights, old folk to the doctor’s.
Then the government put on more taxi licences and the good times dried up. Hundreds of Melbourne cabbies moved into the Canberra market and the business changed. I’d get a radio call to a hotel for a passenger, but there’d be nobody waiting, just the red tail lights of a cab heading off to the airport. Or I’d sit on a rank for hours while around the corner other taxis would park illegally in the street outside a nightclub, snaffling the fares as they came out.
After a while my wife would complain that I’d come home at three in the morning, wake her up and moan about how bad my shift had been. “Pete,” she said, “why don’t you give it away?”
So I did. I took out my public service pension, staid at home, did the laundry and cooked dinner. But I still longed for the good old days, when strangers would smile at me and pretty young things would sigh, “I’d love to ride around in your cab all night!”

Xuberant

Uber App
Uber App

Uber is coming to Canberra. Tonight I attended a public meeting aimed at providing information to interested parties.

There were maybe a dozen interested parties, apart from the half dozen public servants, one of whom opened the meeting by warning that if discussion grew heated, the meeting would be closed down. The session would be run in a question and answer format. Various information sheets were available on a table at the front, and if anyone had any questions…

I got first question, and I observed that I’d spent time as a public servant and that presumably those running the session weren’t intending to get all riled up, so were they really expecting violence to break out amongst those sitting quietly in the room?

Emotions had run high at previous sessions, I was informed.

Uber, for those readers who have been stranded on Mars, is a company built around a ride-sharing smartphone app. People with cars make themselves available to drive those needing a lift, the app links driver and passenger, and a fee is calculated based on distance covered and time taken. Uber has been fabulously successful in cities around the world and a few months ago the company announced they were starting up in Canberra.

What has often happened in other places is that the thing starts, people begin driving for Uber, riders use the app, discover that Uber rates are well below taxi fares, they tell their friends and it goes viral. Taxi owners naturally lose customers to the cheaper newcomer and tension rises. Sometimes a city will try to stop Uber, but it’s like trying to stop a rainstorm with coffee mugs. A few drivers might get fined, but Uber pays their fines, and it’s even more publicity for the business.

Canberra decided to go a different route, bow to the inevitable, address the most frequent objections about unregulated drivers and unsafe cars, and bring in legislation to allow Uber and similar companies to operate legally, hopefully to the mutual benefit of all.

This seems reasonable to me. In the face of apps like Uber, the traditional taxi industry must either find ways to accommodate new technology and new ways of doing things, or be overtaken by events. Some places have seen violence directed against Uber drivers from taxi drivers, fearful of losing even their lowly-paid jobs. That’s not a good way of dealing with change, and Canberra is at least trying to keep things open and safe for all.

Over the past few months, Uber has been recruiting drivers, checking for criminal records and unsafe drivers, inspecting cars for roadworthiness, talking with the government, holding public information sessions and getting ready to begin operating in Canberra.

That’s only a few days away now, and I’ve been part of the process for a while. I’m intending to be one of the first Uber drivers on the road, and I’ll be blogging all the way.