Taxi app company executive’s evening with Transport Minister and other politicians part of push into NZ.
More Uber drivers could soon be on the road after lobbying efforts that included a dinner with the Transport Minister hosted by a top United States diplomat.
The taxi app company is challenging the traditional taxi model around the world, and has more than 1000 drivers in Auckland and Wellington.
Uber allows drivers to make money by ferrying people in their own cars, with rides ordered on smartphones - often at a saving when compared with a taxi journey.
The company's expansion to more than 300 cities worldwide has caused controversy and protests from taxi operators, and this week an Italian court banned services such as those offered by Uber, the latest in a series of legal challenges.
Police have arrested drivers here after questions over Uber's legality, but charges were later dropped and Government ministers now say its business model is legal.
In a war of words with the Taxi Federation, Uber has positioned itself as challenging an industry with powerful political power and influence.
But documents reveal the San Francisco-headquartered company has gone to considerable efforts itself to have its voice heard by policy-makers.
When Uber executive Jordan Condo visited New Zealand late last year, US Charge d'Affaires Candy Green hosted a dinner at her residence.
The invitation list included Transport Minister Simon Bridges, Wellington Mayor Celia Wade-Brown, her transport committee chair, Andy Foster, and Labour and Wellington Central MP Grant Robertson. Mr Robertson said he did not attend the dinner.
Soon afterwards Associate Transport Minister Craig Foss attended another meeting with Australasian Uber representatives and Mark Unsworth, a consultant from top lobbying firm Saunders Unsworth.
"Uber are playing the victim, when in fact it's them who are the aggressor," said Roger Heale, executive director of the Taxi Federation.
The use of a firm such as Saunders Unsworth was reserved for "the BPs of the world, those people with gazillions of dollars", Mr Heale said.
The Taxi Federation has also met Mr Foss to voice concern over Uber operating a taxi service but faced fewer compliance requirements such as in-vehicle cameras.
Brad Kitschke, Uber's director for policy in Oceania, said such criticism should be expected from an incumbent industry protecting "what is essentially a monopoly".
Consultants such as Saunders Unsworth were used when Uber did not yet have the necessary staff in a country, Mr Kitschke said, and the dinner hosted by Ms Green was "not a particular avenue".
"We have a great relationship with both Minister Foss and Minister Bridges' offices, and we speak to them whenever we need to, as I'm sure the taxi industry does."
Mr Foss is currently overseeing a small passenger services review.
In New Zealand, Uber drivers must have three licences from the Transport Agency.
Uber's submission to the review calls for this process to be sped up and the cost to be brought down, and the requirement to hold a passenger service licence removed.
Obtaining a passenger endorsement can take up to 76 days, and total costs of licensing and accreditation for Uber drivers is $1564.
Mr Bridges said the Government wanted to ensure its regulatory regime accommodates new technological innovations, but any changes would not be to help a particular company.
A US Embassy spokesman said the dinner hosted by Ms Green was "part of a range of activities the embassy undertakes to welcome US companies and promote commercial ties with New Zealand".
He said: "Dinners such as these are a usual function for many countries' diplomatic missions around the world."
What Uber wants
• People who download the Uber app on to their smartphone can order a ride with motorists who are not taxi drivers. The cost is then calculated through software and charged to their credit card.
• In New Zealand, Uber drivers need to get three licences from the Transport Authority. Uber wants this process sped up and the cost to be brought down, and the requirement to hold one of the licences removed.
• Uber says that will enable enough drivers to introduce a ride-share model - UberPool - enabling a passenger to pick up another passenger in order to bring down the cost.