Last month some colleagues and I were heading downtown for a luncheon. I offered to order an Uber, but my co-worker beat me to it and said she’d called a cab. In the elevator on the way down, she said she’d not used Uber and didn’t really understand why anyone would. I explained that with Uber you don’t usually get dirty cars, drivers who don’t know where they are going and you don’t get the run around when you want to pay by credit card. I did concede that many taxi drivers have clean cars, know their way around town and only grumble slightly when offered a credit card.
Out we went to our waiting taxi, where, you guessed it, the car was filthy, the driver, when asked to go to the convention centre downtown, offered instead a difference conference centre about 30 km in the other direction and, of course, when it came time to pay, the credit card machine hadn’t charged properly and there was no signal anyway and couldn’t we just put the cash together?
This same driver, no doubt, was waving a sign outside city hall the next week, demanding that Uber be outlawed. Looking at the protests worldwide, it’s tempting to compare the taxi industry to lamplighters and saddle makers and declare a victory for disruptive technical innovation. But I think the innovation that Uber has unleashed is not about new technology or lower prices, but about a new conversation with people who want to be driven someplace. Here’s why this conversation’s better.
It’s a convenient conversation
No phoning. No waiting on hold. No figuring out where you are. No wondering where the damn cab is. No trying to work out which cab in the line is yours. Just push the button and watch the car move along the little screen until the one in the picture is in front of you.
It’s a friendly conversation
I’m not suggesting all Uber drivers are friendly: there are just as many grunting, barely vocal drivers in Ubers as in taxis, and just as many friendly ones. The difference is in the full experience. I’m sure there are friendly, personable taxi company call takers and dispatchers, but I can’t say I’ve ever heard any. At best, the act of requesting a taxi is a brusque, truncated and often intimidating conversation, and the success of hailing a cab on the street is as much about skin colour and the number of bags you have as anything else. Then there’s the snarky, often abusive radio chatter that passes for in-car entertainment in most taxis. Not friendly.
It’s a transparent conversation
One of the reasons courier companies out-competed postal systems for years had nothing to do with speed and everything to do with being able to see exactly where your package was. Even if it was a guest of the U.S. Customs warehouse in Memphis, you knew where you stood. Same with Uber. The conversation begins and ends with a common, documented understanding of what is about to happen. Even before you get in the car, you and the driver agree on where you’re going, more or less how to get there and more or less what the cost will be.
It’s an accountable conversation
There are no perfect strangers in the Uber conversation. You know your driver’s name, they know your name. You can both check up on how well previous conversations went, and you both have recourse in case this conversation ends badly. If you leave your phone in an Uber, you know who has it. If you leave your phone in a taxi, you are likely to have to ransom it away from a driver, whose name you have no way of knowing. If an Uber car is filthy, in poor repair or full of dog hair, someone will care.
It’s a safe conversation
Driving a taxi is hard, often dangerous work, precisely because it’s about letting strangers get into cars together. With accountability and transparency, we have the knock-on effect of greater safety. Passengers can share their routes with others (as the parent of teenagers, I can assure you this has multiple good points). Plus, with no cash changing hands, I suggest that Uber drivers are probably only going to be robbed for their air fresheners.
It’s a (mostly) predictable conversation
I’ve had some terrible Uber drivers. Some have had loud conversations with their families on the speaker phone. Some have fiddled endlessly with their ipods. Some have made me wonder if I was the more sober party in the car. As with taxi drivers, it’s a crapshoot who you get and how good they are. But taking into account the increased friendliness, transparency, accountability and safety, we end up with a conversation that is more or less the same from transaction to transaction. The experience with the app doesn’t vary; there are no weird negotiations about credit cards and tips; no imaginary surcharges because it’s raining, and it always ends the same way.
The technology that underlies the Uber app is nothing that wasn’t available to the taxi industry for years. I would argue the industry as a whole was better positioned than any start-up to marry geolocation technology with dispatch logistics. If they had taken the time ten or even five years ago, they would have identified their closet monsters and created the very same user experience that is killing their market today.
As did the music industry when Napster showed up, taxi companies are putting their resources into trying to legislate and litigate a competing business model out of existence, instead of figuring out how to evolve their infrastructure advantage into a compelling conversation with customers.
The sharing economy didn’t kill the taxi business; neither did technology, nor regulatory indifference. It was disrupted and dismantled by nothing more complicated than a better customer experience.