I hate cabs. Hate them. I'm a Sydney-sider and when I get into a cab, it's because I have no other option. If I can, I walk or catch the train. Uber is a private car service born out of San Francisco that you book luxury transport with the flick of an app, and it promises to revolutionise the way Sydney-siders get around. We tested Uber and found out that some pretty serious unanswered questions lie beneath the surface. Update: Uber has officially launched in Sydney.
What Is It?
Uber is an app client you download to your smartphone that lets you book a driver to pick you up. A black Holden Caprice arrives within minutes to whisk you quietly, comfortably and luxuriously to your destination. Once you're there, you needn't hand over any cash. Your pre-registered credit card is automatically billed by the driver for the journey.
Uber is in a soft-launch mode in Sydney at the moment. It's still testing the waters in a limited beta test. When they go live towards the end of the month (so we're told), hundreds of drivers will be available to take you around whenever you need it. Once Sydney is sorted, Uber reportedly plans to launch in Melbourne in the first quarter of next year.
As far as cost goes, it is a premium service but it's only about 15 per cent more expensive than a traditional cab service.
My decision to book an Uber car stemmed out of sheer curiosity and laziness. I had been at a Telstra media event in Surry Hills, Sydney and found myself halfway between my house in Mascot and the train station I'd need to go to to get home. It was 20 minutes by foot in one direction, 15 in the other.
I fired up the Uber app to see if there were any cars near me. Thankfully, one driver wasn't too far away at all. I booked the driver and instantly, he sent me a message saying he was 10 minutes away. Start the clock.
The Uber service allows you to scroll anywhere around a map for a pickup, but the only catch is, the pickup is instantaneous. You have to be ready to go as soon as you click the Book Pickup button. No advance bookings just yet.
I checked my stopwatch. Eight minutes. I watched my driver slowly approach me on the app's live map. Very impressive. As soon as he was within 100 metres, he texted me again.
"Your Uber car has arrived!"
Clock-stop: 10 minutes and three seconds. Right on time, and arrived my car had.
A beautiful large, black four-door Holden Caprice rolled up to meet me and I climbed in. My driver apologised for not getting the door for me, saying that we were on a busy road. I apologised in return, saying that I didn't know it was the policy. How foolish of me. I told him the address and we began the 10-minute trek to Mascot.
My driver was polite, well dressed and a good conversationalist. What makes a good conversationalist? Someone who knows when it's time to shut-up. The worst thing about a taxi in my opinion, besides playing guess the odour, is the inane conversation. It usually starts with "All politicians are liars", "everything's too expensive" or something-something "Juliar". The worst cab driver experience I had was when the cab driver began letching out the window at pretty girls every 10 metres. I told him I was married and therefore not interested (which is true), to which he replied "no worries, more for me!". Ugh. None of this would ever happen with Uber.
I took a few photos during my journey and asked my driver a few questions about Uber. He's been kept pretty busy in the last few weeks during the soft launch, and he adds that there's usually someone always on the road so the service can run 24/7.
His driving style is polite, courteous and sensible. No rushing for lights, cutting in front of people or remarking on other driver's ability (or lack thereof).
I took the back seat and noticed that the Caprice has a much longer wheelbase than the exterior lets on. It's designed as an executive limosine and comes appointed with an interactive screen in the rear of each seat, a selection of magazines and periodicals in the seat pockets, refreshments, candies and two chilled bottles of water. I am enveloped in a luxurious pod of tan leather excellence and loving it.
We arrive at our destination and I'm let out of the vehicle and thanked for my patronage. I thank him in return for the pleasant journey and wish him luck for the future. I really want this service to succeed here. It's bringing civility back to a vile city to get around.
My phone pings with a new email, and I have just been sent a receipt for my $28 journey from Uber. That exact route costs only $20 in a traditional cab, but the experience is well worth roughly an extra 15%. That's the equivalent of a decent tip. I walk into my house, refreshed, relaxed, and ready to do some more writing.
Uber has had a rocky time of it recently. Before it set up camp in Australia, Uber was fighting off legal threats left and right in the US, levelled at it by various taxi cab and transport companies and agencies.
In September, the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association — an industry group that represents over 1000 transport companies — warned passengers against "rogue apps" and services that may put passengers at risk.
Reported The Verge of the warning:
The passenger is placed at-risk for personal safety, uninsured accident claims, fare gouging and other illegal activity," the association said.
Now it's worth pointing out that Uber — like other cab companies in Australia — doesn't employ drivers, nor does it own cars. It connects passengers with limo drivers via an app. That's a good thing for Uber, but something to be wary of when you're a passenger.
Taxi companies require their drivers to display the meter, a license and some other form of identification and fare structure. With Uber, none of this is available. You have to take your driver's word that he's licensed, you don't know how much it's costing you per kilometre and you can't check the fare before your credit card is charged.
Also, you have no idea where you stand with insurance when you step into an Uber car, either, which might concern some people.
Indeed it is concerning some folks. Uber is already under close scrutiny from authorities.
On top of all that, you're still, for all intensive purposes, stepping into a car with a stranger. I'm not accusing anyone of anything, but it sets of the old stranger-danger alarm signals all over.
Should You Use It?
Uber is a fantastic service. It gives passengers in cities more transportation choice in a place where transportation is a constant hassle. To order up a luxury chariot on your smartphone and melt into the leather all the way to your destination is the dream, isn't it?
Before you ride, though, make sure you're comfortable with what you're getting into. Ask questions of your driver, double check the license plate of the car that's picking you up and follow your gut. If you don't feel safe, don't ride.
Uber is a great idea and a wonderful experience that could do with a little more transparency to make it perfect.
Disclosure: Luke Hopewell received $20 worth of Uber credit thanks to a coupon offer.