The popular U.S. limousine service, Uber, has begun a local trial with a small fleet of cars, and I called one tonight after a late one at the office.
For those unfamiliar with the service, it’s like booking a taxi through ComfortDelGro’s iPhone app, but without the frustration and depressing emptiness their thoughtless UX design induces. Uber’s cars are all top-end Mercedes Benz sedans, and cannot be flagged down on the street (limos, not cabs).
Since Uber also relies on an iPhone/Android booking app, the main differences compared to local taxis from SMRT & Comfort are cost, luxury, and payment method. Uber cars cost more: base charges start at S$7 and trips are a minimum S$12. Making up for this in some way is the fact that fares are consistent throughout the day and night, and include all charges such as our local Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) scheme.
Being willing to pay more means getting a car when you want one, at least that’s the promise once operations are in full swing. If money’s no object, that’s the end of waiting 30 minutes on the line for a taxi. One of the nicest touches of the whole experience is how you just get out of the cab when you arrive at your destination — the fare is charged directly to your credit card and you instantly get a receipt via email. Your driver rates you on a 5-star scale, and you rate them too.
My car arrived within 10 minutes, and it was a great ride. No hiccups or hassle. At the end of a long day, a comfortable seat makes all the difference. The last thing you want (#firstworldproblems alert) is a torn and messed up leather seat, a balled up tissue in the door handle, touching your fingers, etc. I can’t justify paying Uber’s prices in every instance that I’d normally take a taxi, but god do I ever want to!
The booking flow and interaction design in the iPhone app really puts the local competition to shame, and speaks to the premium service that it strives to be. Marking your pickup location on the map is as easy as using Google Maps or picking a location from a list in Foursquare. The moment your car is confirmed, a photo of your driver along with his name and car license number/model are displayed onscreen. On the map above, a little black car approaches your destination.
It’s a pleasure to see a transport alternative that breaks through the calcified monopoly of our local cab operators, where the same pool of cars has to service street pickups, taxi ranks, and phone/internet bookings. Because of the financial incentives that bookings provide, it’s often hard to get a cab at a queue or off the street. Booking has become something of a norm here, and the system feels broken. A solution that allows people to pay more to be served first isn’t a great one, but it could ease a little pressure and be a very profitable and popular short-term solution.
Edit: if you thought I was exaggerating about the torn seats, here’s the regular taxicab I had the next morning, faintly smelling of piss to boot.