SINGAPORE: It's been four years since Uber officially launched in Singapore, its first market in Asia, and since then, tapping on third-party booking apps have all but replaced taxi flag downs for commuters.
As for Uber's drivers here, 46 per cent of them clock fewer than 10 hours a week, said the company, reflecting the rise of freelance drivers who provide point-to-point services for a variety of reasons and who do not necessarily regard driving as a career.
It is for that reason that Government regulations must reflect "a new freelance model," said Uber Singapore’s general manager Warren Tseng in a one-on-one interview with Channel NewsAsia on Wednesday (Apr 26) ahead of the company's fourth anniversary celebrations.
His comments come after the introduction of a new licensing framework for private-hire drivers, which require them to attend a course and obtain a Private Hire Car Driver's Vocational License (PDVL).
Mr Tseng argued that the the PDVL curriculum should be different from what is being taught for taxi drivers, given that the Uber driver is a "very new breed of driver".
“I think when it comes to the curriculum of the actual licensing programme, the training course – the 10 hours of training that drivers need to undergo – this is (a) curriculum that’s based (off a) taxi driver textbook,” he said.
“You’re operating an app, you’re not doing street hail, you’re not operating meter – there’s very different types of subtleties that are involved with being a private driver, and these are some of the things that we try to reflect and make sure the curriculum and the training is modern.”
It's important not to treat private-hire drivers as taxi drivers, cautioned Mr Tseng, adding that it is up to companies like Uber to help shape regulations.
“I think it’s about having open dialogue, it’s about having these frank conversations and they’re not always the easiest conversations to have.
“But I think the LTA (Land Transport Authority) has had an open ear and it’s our job to continue to modernise these regulations to make sure that we’re not treating these drivers as taxi drivers," he said.
“We have to help the regulators develop ... this framework to make sure drivers are still interested, and the outcome of these regulations are in line (with) the ultimate objectives of the city and Singaporeans."
'AGGRESSIVE ADOPTION' OF PRIVATE-HIRE SERVICES
Since the emergence of private-hire players like Uber and Grab, some commuters say they’ve seen more affordable fares and quicker peak-hour pick-ups, which was a traditional bugbear among passengers about taxi services.
In February, a Public Transport Council poll of more than 1,500 people found that commuters were “more satisfied with private hire services than taxis".
However, the initial lack of regulation prompted calls from the taxi industry for a more “level playing field”, as taxi drivers bemoaned the loss of income and the fact that private-hire drivers did not have to meet certain age requirements or undergo background checks and vocational license training.
Against this backdrop, Uber said it has seen “aggressive adoption” of private-hire services and a willingness to try new modes of transport among Singaporeans. For example, within a month of launching its ride-sharing service UberPool, Mr Tseng said about 35 per cent of all trips came from that service – a number that took San Francisco a year to reach.
But there were some initial speedbumps.
“Initially, when we arrived in this market, never in any market around the world have we experienced such an expensive car – like a Toyota Altis here costs S$100,000 whereas in the US it costs a fraction of that,” he said.
In recent months, Uber’s rival Grab has also upped the ante, with a string of tie-ups involving local taxi companies. In response, Mr Tseng said Uber was “evaluating all different types of options".
“What I’ve always said is that competition is a good thing,” he said. “It makes us constantly evaluate what we’re delivering, it makes us keep our ears on the ground to understand what riders want, what our driver partners need. And to continue adapting and modifying our business to reflect those needs."
"So I think it’s expected that the competitors in the market are upping their game, but that’s a natural progression of how this industry works.”
According to Bloomberg, US-based Uber saw growth in gross bookings - the total value of all fares collected from passengers - and net revenue last year, but still had net global losses of US$1.2 billion.
Globally, the company is facing uncertainty after a departure of top executives and reports of negative workplace-related incidents in the US.
But for operations in Singapore and the region, Mr Tseng said “nothing’s changed”.
“Singapore remains a top priority for Uber globally, not just in Asia,” he said. “This is a very strategic market for us. We operate very autonomously, so whatever’s happening at headquarters really has very little impact on what our priorities are here.”
Ultimately, Mr Tseng said “there’s still a lot of work to be done”, such as getting non-technologically savvy segments of the population to be more receptive to private-hire services.
Another example on the driver partner side would be to help them navigate the PDVL transitional phase, said Mr Tseng, citing concerns about the new regulations as one of the big “question marks” for drivers.
“And with government stakeholders, it’s continuing to tell them about the driver partners, what their needs are, and how to make sure their objectives for regulation are in line with what this modern freelance type of workforce needs," he added.