As if there weren’t enough conflict to go around in the Middle East, the battle for taxi cab domination will take hold in Tel Aviv Tuesday, as taxi alternative app Uber launches its service.
The San Francisco-based company will compete with regular cabs but go head-to-head with Israeli app GetTaxi, which offers similar features and is also available in several international spots. Uber is already in place in 160 cities worldwide.
Both companies allow their users to order a cab from their apps, get a price quote for their destinations, and pay with a pre-registered credit card.
While GetTaxi does a lot of business with corporate clients and offers its drivers a means of providing passengers free Wi-Fi in their cars, Uber also has an ambitious strategy that sets it apart: turning every car into a potential Uber ride.
Like the app Lyft (also based in San Francisco, but not available in Israel), Uber allows registered drivers to freelance as taxis, accepting payments for giving people rides.
In order to get that service, called UberX, up and running, however, it will have to convince the Transportation Ministry to update driver regulations, which currently require an eight-month course and special taxi license.
On Thursday, Uber sent Transportation Minister Israel Katz a letter making its case, but has yet to receive a reply. In July, much to the delight of the National Union of Cab Drivers, Katz promised that any new entrants to the market would have to play “by the same rules.”
In June, taxi drivers protesting Uber’s entry into their market went on strike in London, Berlin, Paris and Madrid. Uber said that its signups spiked 850 percent as a result.
Though Israel’s cab union doesn’t intend to follow suit with a strike, it has embarked on a campaign to persuade lawmakers that there is no room for more cab drivers in Israel.
“This tycoon comes and instead of bringing something productive, he brings his money to take jobs from people who have been working here for 60 years,” said Yehuda Bar-Or, the union’s president.
According to Bar-Or, there are already 20,000 operational cabs in Israel, meaning one for every 400 residents. Of the existing drivers, he adds, 6,000 use a local cab app as well, called Click Lemonit (Click Taxi).
“Is that fair competition – for a man to come with his money and buy out my work? As it is, it’s tough for cab drivers here,” he said.
He accused both Uber and GetTaxi of luring drivers away with attractive offers that they did not intend to maintain beyond an introductory period.
It wouldn’t be the first accusation of poaching and dirty play launched at the transport apps. Lyft has accused Uber drivers of purposely ordering and then canceling Lyft rides, in order to waste their drivers’ time and decrease their availability, though Uber denied having any such official policy. It has, however, offered rival drivers perks to sign up with them.
“It’s tempting the drivers, and then it will grow and take the money from them,” Bar-Or said.
If anything, Uber has a powerful new public relations force on its side. David Plouffe, who was a senior adviser to US President Barack Obama and managed his 2008 election campaign, has signed on to be its senior vice president of policy and strategy, starting in September.