As any cab driver will tell you, there was a time over the summer when it seemed that there was a new Taxi booking app appearing every week. Although some seemed to disappear as quickly as they appeared, there are 5 or 6 that seem to be making a reasonable stab at getting properly off the ground. I shudder to think how much money they will end up spending between them, but there is certainly a feeling in the tech community that the London Taxi Trade is ready for some “disruption” and that some money can be made along the way. There was a lot of excitement around the launch of Uber Cab in San Fransisco, and there seemed to be a strong desire in certain quarters to get that level of disruption in London. And part of what I write here will be about if that is really possible here. But before I head off into the depths of a post that could be long and not a little ranty, I need to be upfront about my “interests” in all this. Not only am I obviously a Licensed London Taxi Driver, I am co-founder of Tweetalondoncab (TLC), who in turn had extensive meetings with the people behind what is now Hailo, with a view to combining forces. Those discussions ultimately failed and Hailo then teamed up with the TaxiLight team. TLC itself is not a business and after a couple of false starts is not looking to build it’s own app, it will continue to fill a little niche and provide it’s extremely useful Twitter based information service, Cabup. So my views on all this will almost certainly not be completely unbiased, but they will be based from the viewpoint of someone who has tried to run a taxi booking service & as a driver.
So where are we in the Great Race? Well let’s have a quick look at the runners & riders shall we? In no particular order, and with some omissions I’m sure, here are the services I’ve come across or heard of this year; TaxiZapp, London Taxi App, TaxiStop, Usestands, Get Taxi, Black Cabs App, Cab:App, Hailo, Hail, App Cab & Taxi Square. Quite a list, with the potential for confusion looking pretty high what with the sheer number of apps and the similarity in names. Hail/Hailo? Cab:App/App Cab? Good grief. Out of that list, 4 seem to be making better progress than the rest, Get Taxi, Hailo, London Taxi App and Cab:App, and 2 of those, Hailo & Get Taxi, appear to have serious money behind them.
London Taxi App was first to properly get out into the market and from the feedback I’ve seen from drivers may have done so too soon. I’m sure my driver colleagues will soon put me right, but the initial burst of publicity for London Taxi App seems to have passed, the app itself seems a little unreliable and perhaps they’ve missed their chance to steal a march on rivals. Cab:App is much newer to the market and seems to be going about things in a more measured, steady fashion. Their App, available on most smartphones rather than just iPhone, seems straightforward and their pricing structure simple & fair. The customer pays a £2 booking fee, £1 going to the driver & £1 to Cab:App. The customer settles up with the driver direct, they do not provide the means for drivers to take credit cards payments. To make money, they’ll need to take a lot bookings at a pound a pop but I’m assuming their costs aren’t anywhere near the likes of Hailo or Get Taxi. Whether they’ll have the financial clout to compete with the “big boys” remains to be seen though.
So let’s move on to the big players both of whom, if you follow my tweets, I’ve had my issues with. Yes, I am keen to “win back the work” as much as the next driver, but I do have to ask at what cost? And when the established circuits (Radio Taxis, Dial A Cab & ComCab) are viewed as antiquated, expensive and/or too close to private hire the door should be wide open for someone to come in and provide a new, hi-tech taxi service that blows these circuits away. But on what I’ve seen so far, neither Get Taxi or Hailo are doing that. Get Taxi are insisting on providing drivers with a “drivers box” that attaches to your windscreen like a Sat Nav and a smaller version of the terminals the existing circuits provide. Some drivers are already complaining that the units are poor quality, and that the battery doesn’t last long. Having a separate unit has been pushed as better for safety by Get Taxi, their argument being that using your smartphone while driving is illegal/unsafe. There may be a legal issue here (although I hear that TfL have approved Apps for use on Smartphones) but I fail to see how having an extra box in your cab with the potential for 2 devices competing for your attention, is any safer than having one device that deals with everything. And then there is the cost to drivers, Get Taxis website states that drivers pay “just £5 per week plus 10% pay-as-you-go per job for account work capped at £19 per week”, which works out at over £100/month. Cheaper than most of the current circuits certainly, but not the radical reduction in costs that this technology should be giving drivers. I for one won’t be getting a Get Taxi box in my cab, perhaps if they decide to deliver jobs to drivers via a smartphone I’ll think again. And for the implications of the “pay as you go” model, see below for how I think that affects coverage.
And so we move to Hailo. I will try to choose my words very carefully here as I’ve upset the people behind Hailo already and I have no desire to do so again. But………I don’t like the service they are offering, and here’s why. Hailo, like many of the other Apps, make a big deal out of “winning back our work” by which they mean that lost to the likes of Addison Lee. I’ve always had a problem by what anyone means by “our work”, like black cabs have a divine right to any journey in a car/taxi. But let’s leave that argument for another day. In Hailo’s enthusiasm to “win back our work” they have decided that the customer is king and should not have to pay a penny more than is on the meter, unless they choose to tip the driver. So that means no credit card charge to the customer, no booking fee, no nothing. To make things even easier for the punter they only have to press 2 buttons to book a cab, meaning they don’t even have to tell Hailo where they want to go. Brilliant, as a punter I can get a taxi to come and pick me up from my favourite pub/restaurant and the taxi will even wait for 5 minutes outside before putting the meter on. Take that greedy taxi drivers! But let’s just think about this from those greedy drivers point of view. As a driver I get to use the Hailo App for free, it’s ever so clever and has all sorts of stuff that is going to help me during my working day, stuff that may have been, ahem, “borrowed” from other services. It’ll even keep track of my earnings for me (klaxons now going off in Tax Offices around the country) something Taxi drivers have been desperate to have for years, that pen & paper is history. For those who struggle with irony, that last bit was a joke. But to me, it just smacks of technologists thinking that they know better what a taxi driver wants than the taxi drivers themselves. But I digress slightly. Back to the greedy driver, who’s using Hailo for free, luckily for him he won’t pay a penny until he takes a job from the system. When he does though, he’ll pay “about 10%” of the metered fare for the privilige, but that kindly includes the credit card processing fee if the customer pays by card. It seems unclear if that % stays the same for cash jobs Hailo give you, but they are definitely charging for those, because their T&C’s say they do. All well and good you say, Hailo are providing the tech platform to connect punter & driver, someones got to pay for it right? Well of course. But let’s really think about the implications of this. As a driver I’m out and about on a busy Saturday night and up pops a Hailo job. I’m at Chelsea Bridge, the pickup is a nice restaurant in Knightsbridge. Do I a) take the Hailo job, which I don’t know where the punter is going and I have to pay 10% for or b) reject it and take my chances on finding a street hail around Sloane Square or Victoria. In fact, on a really busy night I won’t have made it as far as Chelsea Bridge empty anyway, and if I do I’m probably getting hailed as the Hailo system is offering me the job. So how are Hailo, or any of the other new services, going to get drivers to cover jobs at busy times? Well there is some stuff on the Hailo site about being higher up the “priority list” the more you accept jobs and the better ratings you get from customers. But, frankly, I don’t think drivers will give 2 hoots about a priority list. They’ll know that at busy times there will only be a few drivers available anyway, so the priority list is meaningless. And we go back to the options a driver has, if every job is allocated without a destination a driver is only going to do that job if he is very close to the pick up and it’s not busy elsewhere in town. Why keep taking jobs at 10% off the meter when you can get the full meter fare from all those nice people waving at you in the street? If you dig into the Hailo website you can find some of their T&C’s which make it clear that Hailo is a distribution platform (with accompanying customer focused rules) only and won’t be held responsible for the actions of customers, and only offer payment protection in certain circumstances. Despite being “run by cabbies” and wanting to “win back our work”, it sounds to me like Hailo will happily introduce you to a punter that needs your service, and get you to cover all the costs of doing so, then run for cover if it all goes pear-shaped. There also appears to be little, if any, attempt to build a community of drivers that might care a bit more about the service and therefore provide the all important customer with better coverage. In short, providing a taxi service is a tricky balance between punter & driver needs, I really think Hailo are far too customer focused. In fact, given that drivers are the ones paying for their service, should they be regarded as the customer here?
To be fair, the problems Hailo face are not exclusive to them. All the new services will struggle to cope at busy times, and I don’t profess to have any smart solutions to these problems. How do the current circuits cope with these issues? Not brilliantly it has to be said, but the likes of Dial A Cab at least have a level of driver loyalty that will be very difficult for the new players to replicate. Dial A Cab in particular are owned by the drivers themselves and when I was a member that, combined with the fixed £140/month subs, made me go out of my way to cover work. I quite literally had a stake in Dial A Cab and clumsy as it may appear, the subs also made me make sure I got my “moneys worth” every month. But the circuits are archaic and it should be possible to provide a similar service for a fraction of the cost. But, with a slightly heavy heart, when I look at the new services on offer now I don’t think any of them offer a realistic, competitive option to what we already have. That is not entirely their fault though, you really do have to question how much taxi drivers are prepared to adapt their working practices to new technology and I have severe doubts about how disruptive technology can be in a trade of 25,000 sole traders, every single one of which has a different motivation to be a cab driver. The experience I’ve had of drivers and the trade while running TLC has left me extremely sceptical about how drivers will welcome these services, and that no matter what they offer drivers they will never be happy.
So there you have it, my view of the Great Taxi App Race. Who will emerge victorious? Or will the cab trade itself leave them all stalled at the starting line? Should be interesting seeing what happens.