Can technology alone save a business presented with change - will the Hailo app save the Black Cab? Anyone who lives in London will be aware of two opposing forces in the world of private carriage: black cabs and Addison Lee.
Maybe it's being excessively romantic to imbue this story with echoes of good vs evil. Some like to see it as the story of private transport told by JRR Tolkien - the earthy plain-speaking citizens of The Shire being set upon by life-sapping beasts of Mordor.
The Black Cab Hobbits are a painfully irascible bunch. Yes they are a noble hoard of self taught artisans, but - jeez - they can make the Daily Mail look life affirmingly cheerful. Black cab drivers' knowledge of the capillaries of London's heart is at times magical to behold. Over the last few years the drivers of Addison Lee, throned in opulent leather Mercs have brought sat nav directed rivalry to the streets of the capital. Neither Mr Addison or Mr Lee existed of course - the name was a construction to secure a better placing in the phone book. No effort is spared to win the war for fares. While competing with black taxis was a challenge Addy Lee has created a serious threat to cabbies' livelihood.
To add to the saga Addison Lee even have their own Sauron in the form of founder-chairman John Griffin. Their supremo briefly found himself as the least popular Mr Griffin in the UK earlier this year when he set about blaming bad riders for most of the road cycling deaths in the capital.
Over the last few years the rise of Addison Lee has been almost unstoppable. Clean, timely cars have taken passengers to their destinations gracefully. And while this is laudable - some say it's at the expense of an invaluable skill. Want to get to Paddington in rush hour? Well good luck if you get an Addy Lee because their TomTom-hooked drivers will trawl you through the busiest streets in town to get there. Want to get somewhere that you vaguely know? Don't expect the drivers to have any sense of the murkier streets of Stoke Newington.
An exciting development in this story has been the recent advent of the Hailo app. Hailo is like a magic button summoning black cabs like heat-seeking missiles. So far so good - new technology is giving an old business a new life. The only problem is that black cabs have been so used to being the only option that they have been completely cut adrift from any idea of service culture. Better distribution has meant they treated themselves like the only choice in town.
Myself and some colleagues had the good fortune to be in San Francisco last week. There the total absence of minicabs has led to the creation of a virtual minicab network called Uber. Superficially Uber is like Hailo. An app which brings a car to you in seconds. But that's where the similiarity ends. Uber drivers are so brimful of good cheer and warmth that one colleague (@olisnoddy) described their service as "a bromance with a lift thrown in". The contrast to Hailo is pretty stark. Sure Hailo invites you to rate their drivers. Pre-arrival the user is presented with the surly face of Ron. Such is level of expectation of black cabs that I immediately start dreading the disagreements that me and Ron may stumble into. I'm reassured by the protection afforded to me by the Plastiglass screen. Like a jail visit on the move.
After being delivered to my destination I tend to tap "5 stars" mainly propelled by a fear that I've never heard of anyone who scored a driver lower and lived to tell the tale. RON KNOWS WHERE I LIVE, I DON'T WANT HIM SOILING THE RECYCLING BOX.
Hailo is an interesting business because drivers tell you that already 7,000 of the network of 23,000 cabs are using the service. But it's very much on their own terms. Want to pay cash for a cab in the middle of the day? A driver will pull up in two minutes. Want to pay by credit card in the evening the app often struggles to find a single taker. Seriously? No one wants my fare? Uber would kill for an in like that. In fact they are - they launched in the UK last month.
Can Hailo save the Hobbits of The Shire? There's certainly a chance. The challenge of course is that the black cab is an old style service that survived through no choice. The web is about to tear that down. Unless they can start bringing the 'bromance' experience to Hackney carriages they may find it is a false glimmer of hope.
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