Uber, the global private driver hire service, has launched in KL. Photo courtesy of Uber.

Those who don’t drive a car in KL often hear the stunned refrain: “But you need a car!” Yet those who do drive complain continually of road tolls, traffic congestion and crazy drivers. That’s all before you’ve even arrived at your destination to find an overflowing carpark that you have to circle like a starving hawk.

So whether you own a car or not, the idea of a private driver might be an appealing  fantasy. Imagine being picked up and dropped off by a chauffeur who knows exactly where you need to go, and can be at your door within ten minutes. You won’t even need your wallet.

This is exactly the fantasy that Uber is trying to make a reality in KL. This smartphone app, which first launched in San Franciso in 2010, has now come to Malaysia. Their mission is to provide private drivers at a touch of your phone.

Uber has already made a splash in the tech world, topping innovation lists and winning initial investments from the likes of Google Ventures and Jeff Bezos. Now set on world domination, they have expanded to over 60 markets in six continents. Uber’s tagline is “Available locally, expanding globally.”

But will it work in Malaysia?

Riding in Style

Malaysia has a rapidly growing smartphone penetration rate. Following the huge popularity of apps like MyTeksi and Waze in Malaysia, which help us book taxis and evade traffic, the launch of Uber seems well-timed.

Yet at first glance, Uber’s service seems rather niche. Is a private driver really affordable for a wide range of people, or reserved for jet-setting business executives? The base rate for an Uber car is RM7 and RM2 per additional kilometer. The minimum fare is RM13.

The smartphone app allows you to easily order an Uber and to immediately see which cars are nearby. The nearest driver will be then dispatched to your location. There is no pre-booking option on the app: you can only order an Uber once you’re ready to go.

Want to share a ride with friends? There’s an app feature which allows you to seamlessly split the cost with other people, with the credit card charge being equally divided between passengers.

The comparisons between Uber and MyTeksi, which uses similar technology to arrange taxi pick-ups, are inevitable. But Uber’s team stress that they are not a taxi service, emphasizing the quality of the “safety, comfort and stylish experience” they offer.

 

Uber drivers are interviewed personally to test their professionalism and city knowledge.

 

Uber works with local private drivers and limousine companies to match drivers to passengers. Their cars are high-end, spacious sedans, and their drivers are interviewed personally to test their professionalism and city knowledge. So, “mana tu?” isn’t a phrase you’re likely to encounter.

When I test-ride Uber, a gleamingly clean Nissan Teana arrives to my home on time. The driver is dressed in a uniform (this isn’t compulsory for Uber drivers, but he also works as a private driver between KL and Genting). The car is stocked with bottled water for passengers.

It’s definitely not a taxi. But Uber’s Head of Asia Alan Penn argues that it’s also not exclusive to the wealthy. “Our hope is that Uber Black is offered at an affordable price,” he says, pointing out that the cost is comparable to one of the premium taxis. He also adds that standard taxis may (illegally) charge more than their metered rate.

At the moment, there is one fixed rate for Uber cars in Malaysia. Eventually, more choices will be offered in KL, including the economy option, Uber X. However, Penn stresses that customers are paying what he calls “a modest premium” in return for riding in a nice car with driven by “professional chauffeurs who take pride in the service they provide.”

Driving the job market

Leon Foong, who runs operations for Uber in Malaysia, tells me that he feels passionately that Uber is offering a better deal for drivers by maximizing their job opportunities. “Changing the labour market can be very powerful”, he says. “We don’t just want to help the passengers, we want to help the people providing the service.”

This might sound like a smooth sell. But it makes sense: the drivers who are part of Uber are usually private drivers or hotel drivers who have several hours of down time. Matching drivers to more jobs allows them to increase their wages.

 

A feature of the app is that passengers can rate drivers, but drivers can also rate passengers.

 

I’m also struck by a feature of the app: passengers can rate drivers, but drivers can also rate passengers. That means that if a passenger receives enough low ratings from a driver, he or she will be kicked off the system.

Another advantage for drivers is that there is no risk that the passenger doesn’t pay up, because each ride’s fee is automatically deducted from their credit card. Of course, that can be a benefit for passengers too – if you forget your wallet, it doesn’t matter.

“In Asia, we have a fixed idea of what is a good career,” says Foong. He says he’d like to change the perception of driving for a living, with future plans including a training scheme for career advancement within Uber.

Next stop, world domination

Uber will not disclose the number of cars they have on the road at the moment, but say that their eventual target is for a car to be within ten minutes of anyone in KL.

The company’s first entry into Asia was Singapore. This year, they will launch in 12 cities in Asia. It’s an example of what those in the tech world call “disruptive innovation”: where technology creates a new market that changes the game.

I ask Alan Penn if Uber will follow the strategy of certain other global start-up ventures, who can afford to rush into new markets and pull out if the numbers don’t add up in time. His answer is pragmatic.

“We have very high expectations but we recognise it takes time to build a business. Expansion in new markets is hard. It may take months or a year before it feels like things click. We went to Paris early on and the product wasn’t right. It took us a long time to figure out our niche and do it well. But we did it.”

 

“It may take months or a year before it feels like things click.”

 

He adds that they take local research very seriously: about six months of R&D laid the groundwork for their launch in KL. Each city’s Uber team is run by locals, because “I could spend a year here and I don’t know a fraction of what our local team knows.”

So, it seems that Uber is here for the long haul. “We need to understand what are the issues from a local transport perspective,” says Penn. “There’s a lot more that we don’t know right now, than that we do know.”

“Fundamentally, the problem that Uber is solving in KL is different to the one we’re solving in Singapore, it’s different from the one we’re solving in San Franciso.”

Ultimately, they are hoping that lifestyle aspirations bring passengers over to their service. “When I walk around here I see nice restaurants, I see boutiques, I see people choosing spending more than they have to on something,” says Penn.

For young people who cannot afford to move out of home, yet still refuse to compromise on the latest technology or fashion, Uber may prove irresistible. There are also social benefits: for nights out on the town, where nobody wants to be the designated driver, Uber could help reduce drinking and driving.

Not everybody can afford to use Uber – especially in the current climate where cost of living is rising. But luckily for the company, affordability doesn’t always factor into what people want to do: and what we end up doing. After my test-ride with Uber, it was easy to see the appeal of the service – and hard not to want to use it again. After all, parking is such sweet sorrow.

 

Poskod.MY readers can try Uber for free with this promo code, which entitles you to two rides worth up to RM50 each. Download the app on your iPhone or Android smartphone, and put in the code MYUBER9, or register at www.uber.com/go/MYUBER9. Valid until 31 January 2014, for new sign ups only.

Disclosure: Poskod.MY received two complimentary rides courtesy of Uber.

Looking for alternative travel apps? Read about three more here.