App-based car-hiring services welcome, but standards must be set

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 July, 2015, 1:11am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 July, 2015, 1:11am

All industries, no matter how safe in a community they feel, need to adapt and change. The arrival of the Uber taxi service to Hong Kong has caused a storm of protest among local taxi drivers. They have complaints, some legitimate, but there is no doubt that the competition is threatening. As in other markets that app-based vehicle services have entered, they need to step up to the challenge of embracing technology and better serving customers.

Uber brings technological innovations that make hiring a taxi easier, more comfortable and predictable. Vehicles tend to be more luxurious and the app means that fares are known in advance and no cash changes hands. Taxis can be booked with a few smartphone clicks and live tracking makes for known pickup times. It's a few steps up on the present system.

Our city's taxi drivers have a right to complain. They have paid a lot for their operating licences, while Uber has moved in without such government approval. The newcomers' strategy is to create demand, make its services indispensible to customers and force authorities to make changes to licensing systems. The approach has worked in favour of the US-based firm in many markets, although not in all.

It's not just taxi drivers and city officials who are disconcerted. Customers who get into a taxi without an operating licence are unlikely to be protected by insurance. Nor do they have guarantees about the skill and character of drivers. Licences ensure background checks and standards.

Uber and other app-based car-hiring services should not be frozen out of Hong Kong. They have gained reputations overseas for good quality service and meeting community needs, and we cannot ignore those trends. But such firms also have to follow the rules and ensure they meet government standards to operate. If they meet those requirements, authorities have to smooth entry into the market. While existing taxi operators and drivers feel threatened by the newcomers, customers in Hong Kong, as elsewhere, welcome them.