I know, I know – taking a ride in what is essentially a taxi is a bit less dramatic than Alborz’s recent “I drove 312km/h on a public road & didn’t die” opinion piece, but this is one that more of us will probably be able to relate to. Hopefully the not dying bit, in particular.
Importantly – and unlike Mr Fallah’s high-speed, daredevil ways – we may all experience this form of road-going rambling, and for a fraction of the cost (a flight to Europe and a high-performance luxury car doesn’t come cheap, whereas an Uber taxi can cost peanuts).
That is, if you dare risk life and limb to take a trip with a random stranger in a dodgy, clapped-out shitbox that has exactly no struts left and smells mysteriously like a combination of vomit, kebab, urine and LPG. Oh, wait – that’s a standard taxi.
Uber, on the other hand, is a pay-by-distance ridesharing service that essentially acts like a private taxi network. The company says it connects drivers with people who need a ride. Seems pretty apt … and fairly similar to a regular cab.
But unlike large-scale taxi service providers, you should theoretically know you’re going to get a safe driver, and there’s zero chance you’ll be driven anywhere in an AU Falcon wagon with 780,000km on the clock.
You can find a car via the US start-up’s smartphone app, and if there are Uber drivers nearby, the wait time can be as little as 30 seconds. The app even lets you spot a nearby driver (with a photo of them and an image of their car) and can tell you what you’re likely to pay to get to your destination.
On a recent trip to the US – that one where I was lucky enough to drive the Tesla Model S from Seattle down to Los Angeles – I got myself Ubered (if that’s the correct term) when I went to pick up another car for a separate test. And I’ve got to say, it was the best cab I’ve ever caught.
First, I downloaded the app, and registered. All it took was the standard form of details, and a credit card to pay for my trips – there’s even a neat camera function that allows you to just take a snap rather than fiddle with the virtual keyboard to get your digits right.
Within two minutes the registration was done and it was time to book my first Uber. Deciding which Uber to take was the next step.
In Australia there are several types: Uber X, the cheapest Uber available (could be any car: a Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic or, eep!, a Ford Falcon); Uber Black (expect a Holden Caprice or Chrysler 300); Uber Lux (Mercedes S-Class, Lexus GS); and Uber SUV (Audi Q7, Mercedes Viano, Toyota Tarago).
My Uber X driver, James, picked me up from a hotel down a side street (he called to make sure he had the right address, and I watched him turn down the street on my smartphone), and helpfully took me to my destination some 24km down the freeway. His ride? A Lexus GX SUV (basically a pimped up Prado).
Not only did he deliver me to where I needed to go, he took me to the right place (I’d inadvertently input the wrong address) and waited around while we made a couple of calls to ensure we were where we needed to be. We got to the right place. I have no doubt that wouldn’t have happened if I’d been in a taxi.
The best and kind-of worst bit was the fact the trip was primarily calculated on distance, not on time spent driving or waiting (James got just $0.21 per minute!). This made me feel like I was wasting my driver’s time, where in a cab I’d have been watching the meter creep higher every 10 seconds or so.
The company – which was recently valued at $49 billion – is touting the service as something of an alternative to carsharing schemes such as GoGet, but one that doesn’t rely on memberships that you may forget about and just continue paying even though you’re not using it … just like that trusty gym membership.
So you use it when you need it. It doesn’t cost anything to stay signed up. And the cars and their drivers are safe. And you can potentially earn money by signing up to be a driver, should you meet the criteria.
Sounds fairly sane and simple, right? Er, not so much…
Uber has found itself mired in controversy in recent times, with high profile cases of driver misconduct (such as the Indian Uber rape scandal, where a driver is accused of molesting female passengers), not to mention the fact the service has been banned in Spain and Denmark.
Australia is in the midst of legislating whether Uber is an acceptable form of public transport.
Just this week, South Australia allowed only one form of Uber driver – the UberBlack “accredited driver and car” – to form part of its taxi network. However, the state banned the most popular form, UberX, that allows regular Joes to sign up to be an Uber driver and pick up passengers for money.
One state east, the Victorian taxi commission is taking legal action with the aim of inflicting harsher penalties than the already enormous $1700 fine for what it sees as unlicensed taxi drivers. In fact, the ABC reports there have been 80 infringement notices issued to Uber X operators and $130,000 in fines in that state alone.
NSW taxi operators are also slamming Uber’s efforts, asking the state government to assist in pulling ridesharing operators off the road. According to NSW Taxi Council chief executive Roy Wakelin-King, the ride-sharing app is undercutting taxi drivers unfairly. The maximum penalty in NSW for unauthorised drivers is $110,000.
"Ride sharing is bad. We all know ride-sharing is undercutting our business. We all know ride-sharing is not fair competition,” Wakelin-King said recently.
Asking the individual state governments to intervene seems a short-sighted and self-serving means of protecting the respective state taxi networks. In places like Melbourne, cabs form a pillar of society in the city (and basically the only way to get to the airport!), while in Sydney you need only have to try and get from the airport to the city in peak hour to see what a vital part these cars play.
Personally, I think Uber is brilliant, and I think cabs are, for the most part, overpriced and entirely rubbish. I ended up taking another one rather than rely on a taxi when I left Los Angeles. It was dirt cheap, and my driver, Mehdi, was hilarious. He even had Reece's chocolate bars (which I think were for Uber Riders to take with them... if they weren't, I owe you a choccy bar, Mehdi!).
If having Uber as part of our motoring landscape means fewer cars clogging up the roads around our most congested cities, what’s the problem? Our nanny state lawmakers seem to be the ones taking us for a ride…
Have you used Uber? What were your impressions? Or do you think it should be banned? Tell us below.