Uber has defended the safety and reliability of its new ridesharing service, after coming under fire from a major taxi industry body which has said it "poses an unacceptable risk to the public".
Now well established in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, Uber began as an app-based service allowing users to request a cab or limousine from their smartphone and track its arrival on a map in real time. Payment at the end of the ride is done directly through the app (via a linked bank account), and drivers and passengers can rate each other on the journey.
Now, Uber has taken the concept of requesting a ride one step further with a pilot program that pairs passengers with regular members of the public as their drivers. Currently operating in cities such as New York and Seattle (where it's known as UberX), the ridesharing service is in the early stages of testing in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane with Uber's "most regular users". There are also plans to open it up to the broader public in the near future.
But ridesharing is not without its critics.
Seattle's City Council recently revised the regulations governing ridesharing in its city, and since the launch of Uber's Australian ridesharing services, taxi industry bodies and state governments have weighed in on the debate, with the former calling for Uber to be investigated.
In a statement 'warning' passengers about the "use of private cars as Taxis" The CEO of the NSW Taxi Council, Roy Wakelin-King, called on the NSW State Government to "uphold the law".
"The services being offered by Uber are not authorised under any relevant public transport law and therefore action must be taken to protect the public interest," he said. "The industry, through taxi networks, is accountable under the law for ensuring there are effective safety and reliability systems in place for passengers and drivers and that detailed records of each and every journey, driver and vehicle is kept for these purposes.
"UberX has none of these regulatory measures in place and this therefore poses an unacceptable risk to the public. UberX has already attracted concern amongst transport regulators in some parts of the US and Europe and action has been taken to protect the public as a consequence."
"While the NSW Government recently announced moves to ensure unauthorised booking apps meet the full range of customer service, privacy and safety standards that apply to existing booking services, I do not believe that it envisaged the use of private cars and unregulated drivers. That's why it is essential for passenger safety that this latest potential breach of the Passenger Transport Regulations is investigated immediately."
However, Uber Sydney general manager David Rohrsheim has contradicted Wakeling-King's comments about the regulation surround Uber's ridesharing service.
"All ridesharing partners must be at least 24 years of age, and drive a registered, 2005 or later model four-door vehicle under a full driver's licence," he said. "All ridesharing drivers must also pass a rigorous criminal history police check, as well as undergoing a driving history check provided by the Roads & Maritime Services in NSW, or the Department of Transport and Main Roads in Queensland.
"Each partner-driver is required to have personal vehicle insurance which is supplemented by Uber's contingent excess liability policy that provides up to $5 million of coverage per incident."
As far as passenger safety is concerned, he said it was Uber's "top priority" for both passengers and drivers.
"That's why it's important to us that every ridesharing partner on the Uber system meets, and continues to meet, our rigorous safety standards," he said. "The entire Uber experience is geared towards ensuring reliability and safety.
"Upon requesting a car, our technology provides the rider with their driver's name, photograph, licence plate, vehicle type, and a contact number. The rider can see the vehicle approaching on a map, and share their journey in real-time with friends or loved ones using our Share Your ETA feature. After riding, both riders and drivers must provide feedback after each journey. This is a built-in quality assurance system that allows Uber to continuously monitor the quality of our partner-drivers on a trip by trip level."
While he would not comment specifically on the open letter from the NSW Taxi Council, Rohrsheim said Uber has "had ongoing, productive discussions with Transport NSW for some time".
Speaking to Macquarie Radio last week, the NSW State Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian was also refusing to side directly with the Taxi Council. While she would not go so far as denouncing Uber ridesharing, Berejiklian said there were limitations on how the service was sold.
"RMS have existing regulations in place as to what makes someone a registered taxi plate owner or taxi plate driver. It depends what [Uber] are purporting to call themselves. They're not allowed to call themselves a taxi service, they're not allowed to call themselves certain categories of things. Obviously, we're able to – as we should – bring down the full weight of the law as to what you can call yourself."
Choice for Consumers
Despite this, Berejiklian said that consumers deserved a choice when it came to getting around their city.
"I completely appreciate and understand the concerns expressed by the taxi industry," she said. "I'm saying, at the end of the day, it's a vexed question. You don't want to limit people's choice, because at the end of the day, it does come down to choice."
For his part, Uber Sydney's GM agrees
"Sydneysiders has been crying out for more affordable and more reliable transport options," said David Rohrsheim. "Based on our ridership and positive feedback so far in Sydney it’s pretty clear that consumers are looking for more choice.
"With more options, consumers win, drivers win and Australia's cities win."