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This was the topic of discussion last weekend amongst some civilised adults with whom I was dining. One, a mother of three daughters, said “I don’t let them hitch-hike so why would I let them get in an Uber car. It’s run by a private company with no industry regulations. How do I know the driver is insured, has a good driving record, or has no criminal record?

Uber, in case you live under a rock, is a disruptive car service taking on the regulated taxi industry around the world. And while I love to see disruptive technology or services – Richard Branson has built a massive business disrupting the planet – this one has touched more nerves than most.

Typical of the questions being asked by the public are:

  • What happens when someone is killed or badly injured in an Uber car?
  • Does Uber have the right insurance?
  • What if it’s the driver’s fault?
  • Is Uber based in some offshore tax haven to protect itself from law suits?
  • Have the drivers been security checked?
  • What if the driver has been a criminal?

And of course there’s the taxi industry protests around the globe:

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Uber protest

Then this week there was the news of an alleged rape in India by an Uber driver. Now I know that ‘regulated’ taxi drivers have also committed rape, so it’s not because he was an Uber driver that he allegedly committed the crime. But the news was not good.

As Uber is a global brand, disrupting taxi services around the world, the fall-out in one country can have serious ramifications in other markets. That’s the nature of the connected world. And it’s usually the negative news that travels fast. You won’t see a headline like this for example: “Uber driver delivers passenger as planned, without any problems“.

I used Uber when it first arrived in Australia. An American friend of mine introduced me to it. Even better, he sent me home ofter a few bevvies in an Uber car on his account. The car was clean. The driver spoke English as a first language, which is rare in the taxi industry. And he didn’t need to know where to go, because his GPS told him.

I’ve been in taxis where even the use of a GPS was a challenge. The driver couldn’t spell, struggled to comprehend (let alone speak) basic English, so entering a street address was nigh impossible. I had to direct the driver to the destination in between him answering at least 2 different mobile phones in his native tongue.

GPS

Uber is here to stay, but it will have to be incredibly transparent and not combative when questioned about its practices.The best thing it could do is run some mass media advertising to sell its message. It certainly can’t rely on people reading a few FAQs to solve its image and consumer confidence problem.

Airbnb is another disrupter facing similar difficulties. Councils have strict rules on short term holiday rentals and then there’s the issues of insurance, hygiene, privacy, noise, neighbours, theft, etc. They are investing more than most in lawyers to fight their cause and build their brand.

Who knows what will happen if Airbnb hooks up with Tinder, so to speak – the mind boggles? Though Loveroom is working on it.

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Yet even in a regulated industry like accommodation, there are still scam artists. I had a relative who owned a holiday apartment in Queensland. He used a local real estate agent to manage the lettings. As nobody had rented it for a while he stayed for a couple weeks.

While talking with his neighbour he discovered it had been rented regularly for many months, but the real estate agent was ripping off all the money and not telling my relative.

We all hate red tape, but regulations are usually designed to protect the majority, define what’s legally acceptable and to clarify expectations. They are the first crutch humans lean on to argue a point when pushed out of their comfort zone.

And so it has been with the taxi industry. The industry is a monopoly of sorts and provides a barely acceptable standard of service as a result. In fact, it was the poor standard of the taxi industry that gave rise to Uber.

Customers are sick and tired of delays, dirty taxis, drivers who cannot speak the language or know where they’re going. So when they find a driver who is polite, has a clean cab, can speak English and enjoys their work, they cut a deal with them and call the driver directly on their mobile, rather than via the regulated booking system.

It’s why so many people use their own registered ‘drivers’ to pick them up at airports, home or whenever they need a lift. So the taxi industry really cannot blame Uber for existing – they built the foundations for its success and eventual acceptance. But it will be a rough ride for a while.

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Gotta go to a meeting, but it’s changeover time for taxis and nearly Christmas so there’s no chance I’ll find a cab. Where’s that Uber App?