Uber HK launches taxi-partnership service despite early setback

March 06, 2019 14:19
With the Uber Flash service, riders will be matched with nearby vehicle, either a taxi or an UberX vehicle, with fares and payments settled through the app. Photo: Uber Hong Kong

Uber’s Hong Kong unit on Tuesday launched a new taxi-partnership service in the city even as a partner pulled out at the last minute, reportedly under pressure from other taxi service operators.

With the “Uber Flash” service, passengers will be matched with nearby taxis or an UberX vehicle, with transactions settled through the app.

If the project succeeds, it would mark significant cooperation between Uber and the local taxis, something surprising given the outright hostility that local taxi groups had long exhibited toward the US-based ride-hailing giant.

In a sign that things won't be easy, Uber Flash faced a hiccup even before it got off the ground, as Tin Shing Motors, the only firm known to have signed up on the new service, backed away at the last minute.

At the launch ceremony on Tuesday, there was no representative from Tin Shing Motors.

At the event, Emilie Potvin, Uber's head of public policy for North Asia, told the media that the new service is ready to use regardless of Tin Shing’s backtracking.

"We respect Tin Shing's decision not to partner with us. Our product does not rely on one company,” she said. "Our product is one that is available today. There are drivers on the platform at the moment."

Users can now tap on the “Flash” feature on the Uber App to access both taxis and UberX vehicles, with fares and payments settled through the app, and the cost of the trip is the same between Flash and the UberX service.

By entering the drop-off point and selecting Flash service, the user will see a fare estimate, including toll fees. After the ride, the fare agreed upon before the journey will be charged automatically to the user’s credit card.

Besides, users matched with a taxi will be able to use all existing features with the Uber app, including upfront pricing, live GPS location sharing, estimated time to destination (ETD), split fare, in-app communication, lost & found reporting, etc.

Uber’s mutual rating system and customer support infrastructure will also remain in effect.

According to Potvin, some individual tax owners have signed up for the service, though she declined to go into numbers.

The executive described the firm's latest initiative as a chance to prove to taxi drivers that Uber's technology can enhance their business. In other comments, she said the car-sharing service will continue to negotiate with the industry.

Critics are concerned about Uber Flash’s legality as it allows the taxis to charge passengers with flexible fares, instead of following the fare meter. It is understood that under existing legislation, taxis can also provide scheduled chartered services operating as a “hire-as-a-whole”, with fares negotiated between the taxis and passengers.

Under section 38 of the Road Traffic (Public Service Vehicles) Regulations, Chapter 374D, the registered owner of a public transport vehicle, including a taxi, may hire the vehicle to any person at a rate of hire based on the time during which the vehicle is hired, with or without additional charge in respect of the mileage travelled by the vehicle while it is so hired, or on such other terms as may be agreed with the hirer.

Shortly before the launch, about three dozen taxi groups protested against the ride-hailing platform, saying it is hurting their livelihoods and that authorities should take action to stop it operating in the city. A representative of the groups also branded Tin Shing “a traitor” for partnering with Uber on the new service.

Uber has launched similar taxi-partnerships in Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Thailand and Singapore.

The service took off in Singapore last year, where Uber partnered with ComfortDelGro, the largest taxi operator in the city-state, to match riders with the closest available rides. Uber will take a 10 percent cut of the fare from ComfortDelgro cabbies from each UberFlash booking, while the commission of each ride taken from Uber’s private-hire drivers in Singapore is 20 percent of each fare.

Potvin noted that taxis in Hong Kong, in general, spend 30 percent of their time idling on a daily basis. Based on the figures from the same service previously launched in Singapore, taxis can obtain a 10 percent increase in business per day after joining the platform, she said.

"We hope that more and more drivers, whether it's operators, whether it's fleets, whether it's drivers, are going to be able to join Uber Flash in the future," the Uber executive said.

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Emilie Potvin, Uber's head of public policy for North Asia, says the new Flash service can help taxi driver-partners significantly improve their business. Photo:  Uber Hong Kong