It is not difficult to see the potential attraction of Uber in a city with among the most expensive taxis in the world. Auckland would seem a natural fit for the app that connects passengers with drivers through their smartphone. People could be expected to grasp the opportunity for cheaper fares and easier access as eagerly as those in any of the 53 countries in which Uber operates. Yet, as in many other cities, the ride is proving far from smooth. Police questioning of passengers over how their fares were worked out points to justifiable qualms about its operation here.
Uber's manner of billing should be a key plus for passengers. It operates as a private hire service, which means that, unlike taxis, the fare has to be set at the time of booking, rather than using a meter. But the police have confirmed they have stopped several Uber drivers and charged them or issued them infringement notices for using their smartphones as taxi meters.
They are right to take an interest. Like taxi drivers, Uber drivers require a "P" endorsement from the Transport Agency certifying they are "a fit and proper person", a Passenger Service Licence, and a Private Hire Service Registration. A police check is also done. But they do not have the expense of installing cameras in their vehicles. Uber says it promotes safety though being cashless, providing identity details of both parties, and photos of drivers, and by enabling each party to rate the ride.
Whatever the wisdom of that, it is clear Uber drivers gain an unfair advantage over their taxi rivals if they use a meter. They are placing themselves on essentially the same footing without having to observe such stringent rules. Uber's response to the police activity has been to file a complaint with the Independent Police Conduct Authority for what it terms "unacceptable and potentially dangerous behaviour".
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If that sounds over the top, it is very much in keeping with Uber's worldwide approach. Since its introduction in 2010, it has been happy to clash with regulators. It has also crushed competition from ride-sharing start-ups and made brazenly clear that it plans to usurp taxis. In some places, such as San Francisco, where the use of taxis has fallen two-thirds in less than two years, it has been a runaway success. But, globally, it has also attracted a swag of bad publicity, both for its bullish attitude and for incidents such as alleged sexual assaults on passengers. Its expansion plans have now hit another obstacle with China's decision to derail the whole concept by banning private cars from taking part in ride-hailing apps.
Uber claims many of its problems arise from legislation written before the advent of modern technology, and that it and other sharing economy services will flourish only if regulations take innovation into account. There is surely an element of truth in this, and Uber has huge potential in cities where residents tend not to own cars and where taxis are expensive. Equally, however, it needs to ensure its drivers are not playing fast and loose with the rules.
No matter its view of the law, that risks discrediting a winning formula.