x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Driving Dubai forward

There’s a slick new alternative to hailing a taxi in Dubai, via a clever smartphone app, writes Kevin Hackett.

Uber’s cashless luxury car service will whisk you from door-to-door in Dubai. Courtesy of Uber
Uber’s cashless luxury car service will whisk you from door-to-door in Dubai. Courtesy of Uber

Picture the scene. It’s a Friday night and you manage to quickly hail a taxi from outside your apartment in the city, and you travel to a friend’s house for dinner, who lives 20 kilometres out toward the desert. When you call for a taxi to take you back home, the operator gives you indigestion by telling you that it will be at least an hour before you can expect a driver to pick you up.

Your hosts are making noises about calling it a night, politely stifling yawns as you patiently wait. And wait. And wait. You take a number of calls from the driver, who cannot find your location. Possibly you wait and nobody turns up at all. But what if you could whip out your phone, press a button and immediately have a driver make his way to your exact location? A driver in a spotless luxury car, one who’s been background-checked and knows every route, every shortcut and every side street there is?

Imagine also being able to track, in real time, the driver’s progress to your stipulated pickup point, as well as being able to see a photograph of him, his name, the type of car to expect and even his registration plate. All on demand, all available at the swipe of a phone screen – this is how Uber operates and, when you try it for yourself, you’ll no doubt become frustrated that it’s such a simple idea. Why, you’ll ask, didn’t you think of it first?

The smartphone has changed almost everything about the way that we live our lives. Think about it: the way that we buy our music, keep fit, email, read, navigate and photograph has altered beyond all recognition. I even use mine as a torch when I can’t find my car keys or as a spirit level when I’m hanging up a picture. And now, here in the UAE, you can use a smartphone to arrange a pickup in your own chauffeur-driven luxury car. Uber, the driver-on-demand service that has been causing huge waves all over the world for the past three years, is here, and it could very well change the way that we get around our cities.

I try out the service for myself. I download the free app onto my iPhone and register my credit card details, along with a photograph so that any driver can instantly recognise me. Having taken a taxi to Dubai Autodrome (at a cost of Dh36), I decide to get an Uber driver to take me home, knowing from painful personal experience how difficult it is to get a taxi from there. The app is instinctively easy to use, and within seconds a confirmation flashes up on my screen, telling me that Inam Ullah is on his way to get me, in a Lexus ES. There’s a picture of him too, along with a user rating (4.9; I’m guessing out of five) and it says that he’ll be with me in 40 minutes.

I stand in a really hard-to-locate spot, yet, as I check my screen, he appears to make his way to me without the need to call me for directions. Forty minutes? It actually takes 13 before I receive a text message to say that my “Uber is arriving now” and he pulls up right next to me. Inam gets out of his spotless Lexus, opens the rear passenger door and beckons me in. He offers me water and asks what sort of music I’d like to listen to, before whisking me home along roads I’ve never before used for this journey.

When I arrive home, I get out and bid him farewell – it’s as simple as that. No money changes hands; no need to tip, just get out. Within seconds, I receive an email on my phone with a printable receipt thanking me for using the service and confirming the details of the journey, the route and how much has been billed to my credit card (Dh63). So it’s cost me almost double the price of my taxi journey there, but still I view it as excellent value for money.

Ryan Graves, Uber’s operations director, explains to me how the whole thing works. “A comparative company to Uber might be Expedia,” he says. “You book your hotel or flight through them, but they don’t own the planes or hotels, they’re simply the middlemen. We’re the same. We come into a city like Dubai and develop relationships with existing limousine companies – locally owned and operated – and essentially make them more productive. The drivers might have two or three hours between clients, and we’re able to fill those gaps for them.”

The premise is simple enough. Uber owns no cars and employs no drivers. It’s simply a piece of technology that works two ways. You use it to book a chauffeur and said driver uses it to locate you. Uber takes care of all the payment processes, which include a tip for the driver, so there’s no need to fumble around for loose change or dash to the ATM at the end of your journey.

“We find the drivers are often louder evangelists for this service than the actual users,” says Graves. “Our goal is to engage in long-term relationships with the companies we deal with, so it’s in everyone’s interests for the drivers to be paid fairly – our revenue comes as a result of us taking a 20 per cent fee from the total fare.”

He says that Uber is operating in Dubai with the full blessing of the RTA. “We’re not really setting up in competition to the existing taxi companies, we’re simply adding value to services that already exist here. Uber isn’t necessarily an everyday thing; sometimes a taxi might be a better option, but it’s a service that’s available if and when you want or need it.”

The company has had its fair share of trouble since its software started making its way into fiercely guarded taxi strongholds in the USA, which are often run with Mafia-like protection. San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Washington DC, Dallas – name a large city in the States where Uber has entered and there will probably be a court case, either ongoing or already settled, where it has been accused of operating an illegal taxi service. Gradually, it would appear, Uber is getting over these hurdles, often calling upon the support of its users via social media networks.

Not that Uber is expecting any such opposition in Dubai. “There’s an appreciation of luxury in this city that’s unprecedented,” remarks Graves. “I don’t see this as a rival to any of the taxi firms. What we do is improve the ecosystem and there’s room for us to coexist.”

Uber has also been in the headlines in recent months because of the enormous investments made in it by blue-chip companies such as Google Ventures and Goldman Sachs (the Google deal alone netted Uber US$258 million [Dh947.6m]) – not bad for such a young company. So what are they going to do with all that money, especially as there’s obviously much more to come in?

“Our ambitions are to be in every major city in the world,” Graves says. “So yeah, there’s a sizeable investment, but there’s also a sizeable plan, and I think the investments match what we’re planning to deliver to the world. We started out small, trying to get this technology to work in just one city – San Francisco – and we’ve just taken things one step at a time. But there’s a great deal of value to what we’re doing; there’s so much excitement surrounding this thing that there was bound to be huge levels of interest from other companies.”

And what does he see as being a natural development for this platform? “We’ve had people say to us that Uber could even allow them to get rid of their own cars,” he says. “Because they’ve found this to be a much easier way to get around the city. But if we look at the verticals from this, there’s a huge amount we could potentially do. This summer we offered Uber Ice Cream in seven cities, where users summoned an ice cream truck on demand to their location, all billed to their cards the same way as with the cars.” In New York, also in the summer, Uber launched helicopter rides between the city and The Hamptons.

If you think about the possibilities with this software, they’re practically endless. Could Uber overhaul the way that we send packages or freight? Graves is cautious not to get too carried away, but the fact remains that GPS technology, used in tandem with such a beautifully simple and effective phone app, could easily be put to other uses. And it’s this more accurate mapping that has allowed Uber to flourish, especially with Google Maps upping its game with greater detail and more frequent updates. There’s little point buying a satnav for your car these days, such is Google’s accuracy and ease of use.

As with almost any successful start-up, Uber has its share of imitators, desperate for a piece of this potentially enormous pie, and one competitor set up shop in the UAE earlier this year. Careem’s Middle East service is currently geared up for pre-bookings only and the technology is extremely similar to Uber’s. There are plans to massively expand over the next two years and to include on-demand driver services as part of the portfolio, but elsewhere Uber has been bracing itself against an onslaught of competition from companies such as Lyft, Sidecar, Zypsee and Hailo, which uses existing taxis and is rumoured to be heading for these shores soon. Graves appears unperturbed and, with Dubai coming online, that brings Uber’s tally to 42 cities worldwide – and, he says, Abu Dhabi is definitely on the cards. “We don’t have any real experience in this region, so Dubai was the obvious choice to start with, but sure, Abu Dhabi and beyond, if it makes sense then we’ll do it.”

•For more information or to sign up for Uber’s service in Dubai, visit www.uber.com/cities/dubai

khackett@thenational.ae

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