(Pocket-lint) - Taking a black taxi in London is not cheap but now it can at least be convenient, thanks to good old technology. The app revolution has hit one of the oldest professions and one of the company’s that’s causing the biggest disturbances in the market is GetTaxi. Pocket-lint went for a ride with Neal Fullman, the company's CEO, to find out how it works.
It’s a soggy day in London and our plans to put this phone-based taxi service to a real-world test have become a washout. The idea behind GetTaxi is that it hires certified black cab drivers on a job-by-job basis. Customers then have access to - at the time of writing - a 1,000-strong fleet at the touch of an app button, which of course reads “Get Taxi”. Instead of testing out the software as we wait to see how quickly and accurately the drivers would respond to our GPS-enabled hail, we settle for a Hackney Carriage as our mobile meeting room, parked outside Russell Square station, rather than face saturation and a sure-fire cold. The rain pitter-patters on the roof of the cab.
“Our whole philosophy is to give as much of this away to as many people for free as possible,” says Fullman, as he outlines the business model.
“We give the taxi drivers the unit, which is worth £200. We don’t charge any subscription fees, unlike cab companies who charge £50-60 per week to be on the books. We just charge a pay-as-you-go 10 per cent on all account work and £1 on all cash jobs. No sign-up, no contracts.”
At the same time, these drivers are free to pick up their usual work from the streets or other accounts that they have, whenever they choose. The only addition is the GetTaxi device itself which Peter, our cab driver, kindly shows us. Very much a standard-looking satnav device, it’s only use is to run the dedicated GetTaxi software and connect to the network through the 3G SIM, the data of which is, again, paid for by Fullman’s company.
“It’s risk free for the taxi driver, and the typical ride value is £20-25 where on the street from a hail is normally £7-13 according to TfL figures.
“Late at night, there’s also the issue of the customer and whether they’re going to end up throwing up their kebab over the cab floor. The type of work that they get from us tends to be better quality.”
With a minimal percentage to pay as compensation and the choice to pick and choose the GetTaxi work whenever they feel, it certainly seems to be a win-win situation for the drivers, but what about the customer?
Well, the app is free and there are no hidden charges in the taxi tariff for using the service. The software is simple and effective. Naturally, it’s a slightly better experience on iPhone than Android but it’s smooth enough either way.
The user has the choice of either letting their phone’s GPS do the work or entering an address manually. You also get the option of adding notes for a more precise pick up point. All of the information, including your phone number, then gets sent out to the nearest taxi driver the minute you hit the "Get Taxi" button -- at which point you’ll find out how many minutes you have to wait until your car arrives. When it does turn up, you get a text notification to confirm. Easy.
“The idea is to offer you as many options as possible to get a tight fix of where you are,” says Fullman, with confidence in the system that became an overnight success when it was first trialed in Tel Aviv in 2010.
“It can be as simple as a one-click solution where you just open the app and hit 'Get Taxi'."
The algorithms at the heart of the service go a little deeper than the customer might realise, though. Drivers are ranked both according to reviews they get from the users as well as their accuracy at predicting how long they’ll take to get to each pick up. And the higher a driver's ranking, the more likely he or she is to be chosen for a job the next time.
“We want our customers to get the very best taxis in any situation. Very best could mean location; it could mean distance, in terms of time; or rating or a whole variety of things and we improve the algorithm every week," says Fullman.
“When your fare gets allocated, we send you the driver’s name, car registration number, ranking, one-click to phone them, estimated time of arrival and their distance from you. You can actually see them getting closer live on a map, too.
“So, there’s no more hanging on the phone to a stroppy call centre getting told he’s just around the corner but 20 minutes later you’re still waiting. It’s like dispatching the taxi yourself.”
The chain is completed by the GetTaxi payment system which allows for credit card payments and payments on account as well as cash. What’s more, you can have multiple accounts under the same credentials so that there’s room for rides which come under work expenses on top of those that perhaps you can’t quite get away with.
“We get more people using cabs because of the credit card situation,” says Darren, a black cab driver who’s been on GetTaxi’s books for five weeks, who joins us in from the rain.
“Those customers that want to pay by card or have a private account, they wouldn’t normally hail on the streets because lots of cab drivers don’t take credit cards. People would just use a minicab firm that won’t moan about taking cards or opening a small account.”
From either side of the equation, it’s very hard to fault the system. On the one hand, customers get to be the controller with all the information at their fingertips, an easy way to pay without having to find a cash machine and access to a fleet of the most knowledgeable drivers in London. On the other, the drivers get a steady stream of extra work with high-quality pre-paid fares at little extra cost. As ever, though, there is just one small problem.
“Black taxis are often cheaper than minicabs," argues Fullman when we bring up the issue of price. "There’s been a lot of miscommunication of pricing in the taxi versus minicab world.”
“If you’re going just over the border of two adjoining postcode, you’re going to pay the same in a minicab as if you went from the furthest reaches of that postcode to the furthest reaches of the other. So, typically the average minimum fare is £10,12 or £15 in Central London, whereas in a black cab it’s £2.40.”
That £2.40 will only get you to the end of the road, as Fullman admits, but convenience could drive you to choose the far more expensive black taxi ride over a minicab if you were looking to get from the middle of town to anywhere outside of Zone 1.
“Sometimes that meter can run away with itself a bit, like when you’re stuck in traffic, and that can be frustrating for customers,” adds Darren, whose job it’s become to educate other taxi drivers to thinking differently about the way they earn their money, but whether or not cabbies would take to the more consumer-friendly fixed pricing remains to be seen.
“We’re looking a fixed pricing," says Fullman. "We’re starting to offer them for airport runs and we’re prepared to do them for longer journeys,” but it’s not hard to hear in the GetTaxi UK CEO’s tone that it’s probably not something that will ever make it down to the standard fare level.
Instead, the most compelling argument for using the service over burgeoning minicab alternatives, such as ubiCabs, is the events of the summer and the Olympic Games. Not only will GetTaxi be guaranteeing a certain amount of cabbie time to make sure that customers have access to rides when they need them but, more importantly, it’s only black taxis that will be able to use bus lanes at busy times with all other minicabs and motorists alike set to suffer in a season of congestion.
Ultimately though, the best reason Pocket-lint could see for using GetTaxi is because it works. The app is well designed, the system faultless and the service slick. If you can order a cab without having to stand out in the rain, if you can wait in the warmth while you watch your taxi pull up outside and if you can have the peace of mind that you know you’ve got one of the best drivers around without even needing worry about whether you’ve got any cash on you - well, that sounds like it’s worth the extra to us.
GetTaxi is currently available on iPhone, Android and BlackBerry with upcoming plans to launch the service in New York and Paris with cities in other major European countries as well as the UK to be switched on soon.