Uber vs. Le Taxi: The Disrupter and the Disrupted

Recently I just felt compelled to write a post about French Minister Montebourg and his ridiculous contortions to explain barriers put on innovation under what I termed “Slow Innovation”.  Adjacent to this story was a very public row around Travis Kalanick’s Uber service and concerted efforts to slow down its spread in France. The story of Uber vs Le Taxi Francais is emblematic of a societal debate that is growing in importance and I believe will come to define the coming decade.

Ayn Rand against the world
On the one hand, I give you a literal Ayn Rand fan (see Paul Carr / PandoDaily’s “Cult Of Disruption“) who believes his service should be allowed to take over the world at speed and will lash out at anyone who suggests otherwise. A Rayndian and Schumpeterian hero of the Silicon Valley who symbolizes disruptive innovation (see also Elad

ayn rand
uber app
Uber attaque taxi pneu

guest starring on Techcrunch re “Uber and Disruption“).

ayn rand

On the other hand I give you French taxi drivers who, due to an antiquated and ill advised regulatory regime, have been forced to spend hundreds of thousands of Euro’s buying taxi licenses that they will spend 15 or more years of hard work to pay back and who are anxious about the extent of the Uber disruption.

In the middle I give you patriarchal and overbearing government that thinks it can and should legislate on every aspect of life, and has trained every one of ifs citizens to believe (rightly) that whoever shouts loud enough and has the most nuisance power will influence the political agenda, gain regulatory reprieve and grab the (public) money.

Faced with the ire of the taxi drivers, the government could think of nothing smarter to do than to impose a 15 minutes waiting time on any Uber customer, a measure justly criticized by the competition authority.  Talk about random: let’s degrade the user experience so we can avoid talking about the overall framework of regulation. “We need to protect the producer as well as the consumer” shouts the self-righteous Minister.  Whichever producer is organized enough that they can take to the street and be a headache for the government, presumably.

It’s a perfect example of the fight between the old and the new, in this brave new world where, to quote Marc Anddreessen (and salute his genius for snackable quotes): “software is eating the world”.

What the innovation zealots miss is that, just as when the European coal mines were being shut, there is a whole generation of people who are getting left out and have no idea what’s happening to them, or how to react to this particular technological disruption. In TechLand, we tend to lack the political and moral interest (or clout) to talk cogently about shifts in society, and what passes for intelligent discourse is generally grandiose talk of supra-nationalism, ever less government or offshore Randian utopias. How self centered.

Quotas, quotas everywhere
A modicum of empathy is required of anyone before shouting loudly about “Innovation Uber Alles” (pun intended) from the rooftops. You have to feel for the taxi drivers who are literally getting screwed here and seeing their life savings and livelihood under threat.

The taxi market in France has been regulated for a long time. Drivers have to buy a medallion which gives them the right to drive. This medallion is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and can be traded when drivers retire. The idea is of course that drivers needed to be registered, trained and monitored, all in the best interest of the consumer.

The industry then of course shot itself in the long-term foot by working very hard to to protect their earnings, successfully ensuring there aren’t ever enough taxis on the road to satisfy demand. Try finding a taxi at 10PM in Paris on a Friday. No one likes the French taxi industry and as a result no one will give it much sympathy today (unlike, say, black cabs in London who are at the apex of good service).

A multi-pronged disruption
When innovation came to mobile and location enabled apps, it swiftly did away with every single reason of why you would want a regulated taxi industry:

Security: every driver is known and every car is tracked with an app like Uber. Hard to see what could go wrong.
Routing: add Waze to your smartphone and you’ll be close to optimal timing every time. Google Maps / Places to find any hotel, restaurant or attraction. Anyone can be a driver now.
Reputation; give a driver a 3 star rating on Uber and their customer service call message to understand what happened. It’s a real time meritocracy.
Certainty: every Uber or Hailo driver can track their car in real time. It creates a commitment on both sides that the ride is real and let’s you know when your car will stop by the front door. Peace of mind for both parties.
Civility: it takes no more than a name to recreate a relationship with a driver. “Hi Mohammed, I’m going to the Eiffel Tower”. “No problem Fred”. This is where Uber & co. transcend the functional to truly change the experience.

uber app

When you wrap all this together, you can see that we have a fundamentally better customer experience on a variety of levels and that it is foolish to think that anyone can hope, whatever motivation they may have, to stop this.  A mobile native experience that rewards you for being nice to your driver !

Guerilla Action
Like seemingly everyone with a grudge in France, taxis took to the street. The country is truly in the grip of special interests. Whichever minority can take its message to the street with enough brute force will make the government yield. One week it’s farmers, the next it’s truckers, the next it’s train drivers, the next air traffic controllers and so on. Not to mention public servants, teachers and whoever can make your life a misery.

Uber attaque taxi pneu

That does not of course include the Uber drivers who are taximen of a different generation and generally hard working young men (yet to meet a woman) who are embracing new technology to build their business. Why anyone would consider it acceptable to stone a fellow driver’s car because he happens to not have fallen prey to the old way is quite beyond me.

There is no other way to describe this: the majority is being held hostage by a collection of minority groups which high nuisance power. You don’t often hear of scientists taking to the streets when their funding gets cut, do you ?

How we you deregulate a market that is being disrupted at speed?
If you put yourself in the shoes of the regulator for a second, they do have to come up with transition solutions that help the market evolve smoothly. In this case the long-term objective may be to shift the regulatory burden to the providers (Uber would be responsible for travelers safety and quality of service) and open up the taxi market.

This is not an easy problem to address. One solution I suppose would be to impose a reasonable low fee on the new entrants which would fund the gradual retirement of the medallions, with the government shouldering part of the burden. I have not looked at the maths to see whether this is workable. Taxis could retain certain privileges such as the use of taxi ranks and priority at strategic locations like airports or train stations.

You can’t fight gravity
In any event randomly degrading the user experience is not good policy. When the government says it is its job to protect the “Producer”, that is disingenuous at best. What it means is to protect the status quo for a certain subset of those producers until the next election comes about. Not exactly the kind of thought leadership we need to get us on the innovation path as a society is it?

And pity the French startups who are trying to build their own business, such as Yves Weisselberger with Snapcar.  For them, it’s not just the Americans they have to beat, but their government too.

Ultimately what we really need to disrupt is politics so we do away with so-called leaders who put their heads in the sand and win only in the field of rethorical debate.