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The Promise of Mobile is Approaching With UberCab

Four years ago, I wrote some thoughts on my vision for a mobile future. I referred to the city of Cannes — I was there when I wrote it — and long term readers began referring to it (rather comically, I thought) as ‘The Cannes Doctrine’.  I expanded the document in a newsletter editorial last year. In that document, I outlined how I wanted mobile services to function. I don’t want apps, per se, I want services.

Witness, for example, this perspective on taxis:

Ed tells his device to locate a cab to the Grand Hotel in Cannes. An auction immediately takes place. In near real time, Ed’s device begins to receive automatic bids from an array of taxis all <2 minutes away. He picks the one that’s marked with ‘group approval’. That is, I’ve used them and five of our collective friends have had good experiences with this chap in the last 6 months. He also selects the Mercedes Benz with Air Con and pays a slight premium for that choice. The cab arrives in 60 seconds.

Ed doesn’t need to know directions or anything else. He just swipes his device on the taxi’s RFID style reader and he’s done. The taxi driver smiles and nods as Ed sits back and relaxes.

This is precisely how I want taxis to work in the future. I’d really like to see a time when this kind of service is implemented, properly, worldwide.

It turns out we’re not far away from this time at all.

Imperfect Information

It’s an industry that’s ridiculously poorly executed at the moment. I cannot stand it when it’s late at night, you hail a cab and the driver stops briefly to ask if you’re heading to Ealing. If you are, he’ll take you home. If not, he can’t be bothered. My frustration is that there’s probably another taxi sitting around the block that I don’t know about — and who would be delighted to take me home, perhaps at a reduced rate because it’s on his way home too.

There are a number of taxi applications for the iPhone platform that are going some way toward delivering the service I’d like.

Has The Future Arrived?

Michael Arrington over at TechCrunch reports today on a new service that is right up my…er.. street.  The service is called UberCab and Michael, rightly, raves about them in his post. Here’s his overview:

UberCab contracts with black car services – mostly Towncars and Escalades. There’s a lot of unused inventory in those businesses and they are happy to work with someone who eats up that inventory. As a user you download an iPhone app (I have it on my iPad) and add your credit card information (that’s the last time you ever have to deal with that). When you want a car to pick you up you hit a button. The app knows where you are and finds a car and driver nearby. The driver accepts via his/her own iPhone app, and you then get to watch them come to you on a map with a pretty darn good estimate of the number of minutes it will take for them to get there. When they arrive you get in the car and tell the driver where you want to go. When you get there you see the charges and accept them, which are then billed to your credit card, tip included. A receipt is emailed to you. And then each side gets to rate the other – I love the fact that the driver rates the passenger, too.

Absolutely fantastic. I love it! I particularly like the ability for the drivers to rate the passenger. That’s really smart.

Michael points out that UberCab completely removes the barriers to entry for anyone wanting to run a taxi service:

The difference between UberCab and its various competitors is that the driver uses his own iPhone app, not some clunky one-use device installed in his car. That means there’s no technical barrier to anyone becoming an UberCab driver. Which means that anyone with a car, theoretically, could join the network and start picking people up.

Insurance and a few other legal things will need to be managed — ideally by UberCab — but the eBay style ratings will, I imagine, give people significant peace of mind.

It’s Needed Everywhere

There’s no reason why this kind of service can’t be deployed anywhere. It’s most definitely in need in our planet’s big cities, but it’s not just the metropolitan areas that need it. I cannot stand, for example, getting off the train at my parent’s home town of Billericay and finding NO taxis at the taxi rank by the Station. That’s usually because they’re parked strategically around the town hoping someone will call. So I have to walk into the grubby little office and wait 10 minutes.

I look forward to being able to use UberCab the next time I fly into San Francisco Airport. But I’d like to use it everywhere.

Does it solve a real problem? Definitely!

Right now there are about 20 London black cabs sitting outside Richmond-Upon-Thames railway station doing absolutely nothing. I’m pretty sure there are a number of mothers walking around the shops with iPhones who, if they had the option, would happily pay £5 or £10 to get their shopping and their little one back home in a taxi. But the cabbies standing around chatting to each other at the Station don’t know about this demand. And the mothers don’t have the opportunity to express their (possible) demand. So nobody wins.

I’m excited to see how things kind of mobile-led inventory management technology can really start changing industries. Bring it on!

What do you think of the UberCab concept? Have you used it?

By Ewan

Ewan is Founder and Editor of Mobile Industry Review. He writes about a wide variety of industry issues and is usually active on Twitter most days. You can read more about him or reach him with these details.

15 replies on “The Promise of Mobile is Approaching With UberCab”

Humm… loving this concept but the sentence “Which means that anyone with a car, theoretically, could join the network and start picking people up.” screams out as the idea's VERY BIG FLAW.

I'm not really sure being certified like an 'eBay Power Seller' could quantifiably ensure that lone women can get into any of these 'cars' without risking their lives. It would have to be more rigorous than that. I think this idea is great, in theory, but as a woman I am all too aware of the risks of getting into an unlicensed taxi. So I don't.

Even the media has attempted to warn people of the dangers of minicab drivers, there was an ad campaign sometime last year, not to mention horrible stories in the press to warn people off using them.

Until I can believe that this will work with proper regulations in place, I will have to hail a taxi the traditional way.

Thanks for your article! You're spot on with UberCab's goals. We really are trying to solve a pervasive problem, relevant on an international level. As far as people's concerns about ANYONE being able to become an UberCab driver, that's not entirely correct. We won't hire just anyone off the street. We find quality drivers who have been in the business for quite some time and do our research. Drivers have so much down time throughout the day, that turning on their iphone during these lulls for UberCab requests makes perfect sense. We also use the review system as a prime opportunity to get feedback on our drivers and have already let one go to allow more room for our wonderful, top-reviewed drivers. If you find yourself in San Francisco, definitely check us out. It's a pretty amazing experience. Otherwise, look out for us as we grow! http://www.blog.ubercab.com
Thanks again,
Austin
austin@ubercab.com

Ewan-
Thanks for your article. You're spot on about UberCab's purpose. We're really attempting to solve a pervasive problem, relevant on an international scale. As for people's concerns about hiring anyone as a drive, this is a misconception. We won't hire just anyone off the street. We look for qualified, experienced drivers. The review system also has been wonderful as incentive in keeping our drivers accountable. Drivers have so much downtime with the companies they work for that it makes perfect sense for them to flip on their iphones during these lulls and pick up UberCab requests. Anyway, if you're ever in San Francisco definitely give us a shout out. And watch out for us as we grow on our blog: http://www.blog.ubercab.com.
Best,
Austin
austin@ubercab.com

See this response to Arrington's blog on same subject: http://techcrunch.com/2010/08/31/what-if-ubercab-pulls-an-airbnb-taxi-business-could-finally-get-some-disruption/

Love the guys at UberCab.

But to thoughts about “disruption”, here are some important things to keep in mind: It is the law in most US cities that both Limo and Taxi drivers have completed a special driver certification training and have an up-to-date permit to operate a taxi or limo – in San Francisco, this is called the A-Card Permit. The training is a week long, full-time. The permit is an annual fee. Cities determine for themselves how many permits they will issue annually. [Note – cities will not allow this registration and certification to be handed to a private party…we checked.]

At Cabulous, we love UberCab trying to help licensed Limo drivers (as we try to help licensed Taxi drivers), but make no mistake – city governments will not allow the kind of “disruption” folks in the tech community so love to talk about (Improvement, yes – disruption, no). We used to have unregulated masses of hack drivers in the US. It was a disaster. Oversupply…No driver able to make a living…dangerous conditions. Read “Taxi – A Social History of the New York City Cab Driver” for a good read on this topic.

What passengers mainly don't like is not feeling like there are any drivers around who will take our fare for a reasonable rate (with other complaints being credit card payment availability, car condition, and driver courtesy). Check out http://cabulous.com for our approach to this on the Taxi side.

I don't think UberCab really wants to create masses of what are called “gypsy” cars. Their team said to me that they are focused squarely on helping licensed limo drivers.

But for anyone who would like to depart from licensed drivers, here's the thing: As an official of a city government said to me recently about outfits that want to make anyone a “virtual taxi or limo”: “Terrific! I can give an iPhone to one of our policemen and have a heyday arresting people. It will be like shooting fish in a barrel.” Last we checked, the fine in that city for picking up a passenger without a hack license was $5,000.

Very interesting, and agree that the model is applicable to cities everywhere. I'd go a step further though. It is applicable to physical services everywhere. Whether it is an emergency plumber, or someone to deliver a slab of beer from Tesco at 1AM on Sunday, same story applies.
We have just such a proposition live as a beta in London- http://www.YourJobDone.com
I'm in San Francisco meeting people at the moment, with a view to finding synergies and investment. Would love to get in touch when back in London in October.

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