On 5th Aug 14, I got my brand new Hyundai i40 taxi. I’m now a hirer with Comfort Taxi company with 2 relief drivers. Compared to 6 months ago when I started driving taxi as a relief driver, I’m now more confident. There is still much to learn as I am still new to the trade. Compared to other taxi operators, Comfort gave me an extremely good offer. I need not pay a single cent for the new taxi. I just need to hire it for at least a year. Failing which I need to pay a penalty of only $500. It is a fair deal.
I’m now driving the day shift from 6am to 6pm on Mon, Wed and Fri. Full shift on Sat and Sun meaning no relief driver. My permanent relief Johnny Cash drives the night shift from Mon to Fri (6pm to 6am). Another relief Alan Taxi (AT) who is my mentor drives the day shift on Tue and Thur only. He is also driving 2 other cabs over the weekend. Both relief drivers live on different floors in my block. As such, I’m off on Tue and Thur. This brand new taxi is driven by 3 of us 24/7 round the clock without idling. It’s not more than 9 days since the taxi came out of Komoco and the mileage is now more than 5,000km. With more than 500km clocked everyday, it far exceeds LTA’s requirement of at least 250km per day.
So far, there’s no complaint about the new taxi. However, there is one perennial problem I find disturbing. I’ll try to explain and highlight the problem confronting us ( the 3 drivers of this taxi) and most taxi drivers. It’s about the MDT – Main Display Terminal – the small monitor TV screen on all the cabs. MDT is the lifeline of all cabs. It shows the details of trips, jobs, driver’s ID, takings etc. If there is a current call booking, it will display the information. The driver then bids for it and proceed to complete the job if he is successful in taking the bid or current call. All calls within a radius of 5km are supposed to appear on the MDT. The customer pays $2.30 (off peak) or $3.30 (peak) for each current call booking. 30 cents go to the company and the driver keeps the rest.
The MDT is the lifeline of the taxi. If the taxi driver takes 20 call bookings on his 12-hour shift, he gets an extra of at least $40 based on non-peak hours period. If include the peak hours period (6am to 9.30am and 6pm to midnite), he could easily make more than $50 extra on top of the meter fare and whatever surcharges e.g. CBD, peak hour, midnite or location surcharges.
My taxi may be brand new but the MDT is re-cycled. MDTs are taken from condemned cabs and re-installed on all new cabs. On the first day, I sensed some problem with the MDT. It’s slow and lagging. When I stopped the meter, the MDT screen took ages to appear wasting everyone’s time. Customer kept asking how much the total fare. I had to wait for the total fare to appear slowly on the MDT screen before I could confirm the final charges. Sometimes, it simply hung. The problem persisted even after I had to do a soft re-set.
The next day when I started my shift at 6am, it totally blacked out. It gone dead on the second day. No choice, I just cruised around picking up customers on the streets. No current call bookings for me. I did not want to miss the morning peak golden hours from 6am to 9.30am cuz of the extra 25% surcharge on the meter fare. After I sent my taxi to the workshop at Sin Ming Drive to repair around 10am, I walked to the nearby coffeeshop to take my meal break. Whenever I sent in the taxi to repair the MDT, it is at my own time. I still pay for the rental when the taxi is not plying the road. I can’t claim “down-time”. Meter not running but I still continue to pay rental without any rebate.
On the next day, I sent my taxi again to the same workshop at Sin Ming Drive to repair. Again, they replaced it with another old re-cycled MDT. This current MDT is the 3rd set. When I was about to leave the workshop, I noticed the same big “Red Cross” on top of the MDT screen. The technician told me to move around cuz sometimes it’s due to blind spots with no signals. However, for the whole day when I was plying the roads, the same “Red Cross” still visible with no call bookings at all. Frustrated I took a long ride with an empty cab all the way from Meyer Road to Sin Ming Drive burning extra fuel and loss of income to complain about it. This time they changed the antenna. When I made so much noise to the counter staff at the workshop, they threw me a small piece of printed paper with a nameless and faceless feedback address to complain! The same feedback channel which took 3 days to reply to me when I complained that I could not log in to company Driver Portal after I migrated from a relief to a hirer status cuz I need to register my relief drivers before they could drive my taxi.
Just to side track. When I got enlisted for BMT training in 1983 at Pulau Tekong more than 30 years ago, we were told on the 1st day that there is a “Godfather” assigned to NS men in the whole camp acting in our interests. An experienced middle-aged about to retire veteran holding the rank Captain who would attend to all our complaints. He is available 24/7 even giving us his personal pager number (no mobile phones in those days) to page if there is any issue eg ill-treatment, unfair discrimination etc. He’s only answerable to MINDEF – the direct link between those gods and us undergoing National Service training as soldiers to serve our country. The Captain assured us that if there’s a genuine complaint against any abuse of power or ill-treatment, he would take up our case. Any unhappiness or grievances shall be investigated with full confidentiality! With this sort of feedback channel that comes with a name and a face, wonder no more there is no mutiny in all our 49 year history of NS. It is unheard of.
Yup, if only Comfort could emulate such a feedback channel all of us will be much happier working as business partners. Sadly, it is not the case here. It seems that they are only interested in collecting rental. They only act fast if you owe them taxi rental. I notice so many cabs park there whenever I go to the workshop having the same problem. I was not alone facing faulty MDTs. Most of them just resign to the helpless situation. What to do when they keep re-cycling primitive dinosuars?
Replacing two faulty MDT sets within seven days in a brand new taxi is clearly unacceptable by any yardstick or standard of measurement!
Back to my MDT problem, it is still giving the same problem till today. Like yesterday morning, I had to endure the big “Red Cross” from 6am to 8.30am until it suddenly appeared out of nowhere. From then on calls started coming in. When I parked at the Eunos multi-storey carpark for my meal break, the same problem came back again. No signals. After nearly an hour, then the signals came back with the Red Cross disappearing. This morning, AT also experienced the same problem.
Let’s examine the repercussions of the MDT problem. Common sense will tell you that once the MDT is down, no call bookings will come in. Meaning, those who urgently need a taxi can’t reach me. The morning period where everyone is rushing to work is crucial – that’s why there is a surcharge of $3.30, an extra $1 and 25% for the morning peak period from 6am to 9.30pm. Imagine, if it is multiplied by 100 or 1,000 faulty MDTs, what would it be like? No wonder my fren Lohcifer could not get a taxi! This morning, he msg me to pick him up but I told him I’m not driving today. He complaint bitterly that he could not get a taxi after tried calling for half an hour until he gave up.
Recently, there are calls to improve taxi service standards and it’s availability. The chief editor of Today wrote a piece on taxi service putting the blame on taxi drivers when he compares us with London cab drivers. CNA also did a TV program comparing us with Hong Kong cabs highlighting the fact that the number of taxi is almost half of us but it takes only less than 10 mins to get a taxi. MOT recently made a statement in Parliament giving statistics of how much increase in number of cabs on the roads and the increase in number of operating hours citing the LTA minimum 250km per day for each taxi. Everybody is talking about taxi problems with the blame game mostly on errant taxi drivers, sub-service standards etc. In other words, the focus is mainly on taxi drivers. But do they understand the real issue of the problem? Did they experience the frustration and exasperation I just highlighted above?
This morning I was talking to cabby Crazy Kang about my MDT problem. He also had his share of MDT frustration. According to him, he claimed that last night around 10pm, he was somewhere near to Loyang Industrial Estate near to the Tua Pek Kong temple. He stopped at the traffic lights waiting for the lights to turn green. Next to him, another Comfort taxi happened to show a call booking but the driver did not take the call. Crazy Kang was just beside him and he wondered why his MDT – in full signals as reflected in the number of bars – did not receive the call booking. He wonders why the next Comfort taxi could get the call (which the driver did not take) and he was not able to take the same call booking. He was desperately looking forward to call bookings and customers! He felt that maybe, his MDT is an old version compared to the next driver’s taxi which uses a more powerful machine! That is the only explanation he could think of.
From his experience, he told me that as far as his MDT is concerned, he must go to certain spots to receive call bookings. He would drive his taxi to higher ground or even right up to Lor Halus in order to receive call bookings. Taxi drivers like Crazy Kang even had to go to the full extent of looking for favorite spots like those fishermen fishing in the open seas looking out for the best fishing spots! Crazy Kang is still alive and kicking. He doesn’t mind being quoted. In fact, he is willing to stand by what he said. He’s calling on all the gods as his witness to vouch for him that he’s not lying about the incident.
If the MDT is perfect, would taxi drivers like Crazy Kang be so frustrated? Which taxi driver doesn’t want to make extra money and get more business? Why are they using re-cycled faulty MDT sets wasting everybody’s time without proper QC checks? Is it due to bottomline and cost cutting measures to maximise profits? Actually, we do not mind re-cycled MDT sets if they are working properly. Perhaps, the MDT – which is the life line of all taxi is not on the KPI of LTA. That is why no priority is accorded to the MDTs. Should LTA make it a point to evaluate taxi operators based on this issue? I know what I’m talking about cuz I have driven not less than 10 taxi as a super relief driver. My MDT is the worst of the lot.
The other day, I was having a discussion with a customer from Bishan Junction8 enroute to Ocean Financial Centre. He’s a Msian working here. He was also complaining of having a hard time getting a taxi. When I reached his place, he was so delighted saying that getting a taxi in the morning peak is just like striking lottery. Lohcifer had no luck this morning cuz he didn’t get a cab.
On the question of not able to get a taxi between 4pm to 6pm, I told him that actually it’s the changing shift timing of taxi. I told him that the taxi rental is so high and that LTA imposes a daily 250km resulting in most taxi having 2 drivers. Usually, the changing shift timing is between 4pm to 6pm. It’s either 4pm to 4am, 5pm to 5am or 6pm to 6am per shift. Of course there are other arrangements of timing between the hirer and the relief. In order to be assured of getting a taxi during this period, it is best that you state your destination. If the taxi driver is changing shift near to your destination, I’m sure he will take your call. Let’s say that it’s about 5pm and I need to hand over the taxi by 6pm at Pasir Ris to my relief driver and I’m somewhere in town. If I see your call booking stating destination at Pasir Ris, Bedok, Tampines or even Changi Airport, I will definitely take your call since I’m proceeding back to Pasir Ris to hand over the taxi. If there is no destination stated, I would not dare take your call. What if you want to go to Jurong or Tuas, then I would not be able to make it back by 6pm at Pasir Ris when it’s time to hand over the taxi. Why take the risk? I can’t refuse to send you to your destination at Jurong if I happen to take your call. I’ll get a complaint. It’s quite obvious right? Do you see the logic?
Suddenly, the said customer is able to understand the whole issue. I told him that that is part of the problem. There are many issues or problems relating to lack of taxi availability. Just last week, my Indian FT fren Manish msg me to complt that he had to wait for nearly 40 mins somewhere at Shenton Way to East Coast for dinner. He was late for the dinner. That badly reflects our transport efficiency. I told him that LTA is only interested in catching us for traffic offences committed such as illegal stopping for pax to alight or picking up pax not at designated places in town area etc. If we clock more than 250km, no incentive but below that, we will be penalized. If we take lots of calls also no rewards for us etc. Taxi is never part of their overall master transportation plan. We are just insignificant players lurking in the periphery of main stream transportation. Taxi companies on the hand are only interested in taxi rental collection to boost up their profitability.
I’ve ferried many customers from NCS in AMK. In fact, those staff working in NCS are our largest taxi users. If you want an international community, go to NCS where you could find all kinds of ppl there. It’s United Nations there. Those talented IT professionals have created first class phone apps for Govt and Statutory Boards. I really like most of those apps such as CPF, My SingTel, NParks or even HDB etc are so user friendly and convenient. Why is LTA not having an integrated taxi app like those? Perhaps, taxi is never their top priority?
Recently, the vacuum over lack of first class taxi apps is taken over by GrabTaxi, Easy Taxi and even Uber. Those apps are created internationally not locally I suppose. They are fast gaining popularity. I have seen young sexy girls promoting those apps at popular hawker centers where taxi drivers patronize such as at Beo Crescent HC or even at Changi Airport with cabs queuing up for pax and those young girls flirting from one taxi to another explaining and giving out flyers. Many feel that the relevant authorities are merely paying lip service without actually looking at the crux of taxi problem. Soon, in a matter of time, those third party apps with customer and driver friendly features will replace the traditional call bookings rendering MDTs obsolete.
Since the MDT problem is quite common facing taxi drivers, I suggest that the entire MDT dept shut down. It’s not cost efficient and has become irrelevant. Fortunately, there is a choice and an option to MDT woes. As mentioned earlier, there are 3rd party apps to get more business and calls. So far, most of my taxi frens resist using those apps cuz they are not sanctioned by Comfort. But his may change cuz there is one taxi driver in EM from another taxi operator making tons of money thru one of those apps. If you look at their FB, they even regularly reward and incentivize taxi drivers with lucky draws and “golden calls” offering electronic gadgets such as popular mobile phones as prizes. Indeed, they are so aggressive that taxi drivers like me are tempted to switch over to using their apps. I need not have to waste my time and fuel to make trips to MDT workshop at Sin Ming Drive at my own expense. I could forget about all the frustrations indeed. Others are reaping benefits out of those apps. Why shld I deprive myself from those benefits?
On a side note, taxi drivers are not worried about Grab taxi or Easy taxi apps. We are more concerned about Über app. Now, anyone could make use of Uber to ferry customers without the need to go thru LTA approval, grueling structured taxi course and medical check-up to get the taxi vocational license. As legitimate taxi drivers, we are governed by LTA rules and regulations. It’s a way to control and monitor taxi drivers who are 100% citizens to safeguard and protect our country’s image. Any nonsense will have your taxi vocational license revoked thus breaking your own rice bowl. But with Uber and LTA not doing anything about, it seems that soon any body whether citizens or not could enter the taxi trade easily. Is it fair for ppl like us having to go thru the entire process of obtaining a taxi vocational license? They even advertised boldly on their FB and web site from point A to point B taxi meter fare costs $12. But with Uber it’s only $10! Are we going back to our early dark days where uncontrolled & unregulated pirate taxi is rampant? That reflects on LTA’s policy towards taxi operation. We are always at the bottom of the food chain in its transportation blue print.
Comfort or LTA should follow all other govt agencies in tapping into existing technology developing a first rate taxi app where all taxi drivers (in the case of Comfort for its own cabby) could easily use to match customers’ demand – similar to apps like Grab Taxi or Easy Taxi. It allows real time tracking showing details of customer’s pickup point and intended destination. If those third party apps could do it so well, why can’t LTA or Comfort do that? Is it their lackadaisical attitude that is hindering progress or improvements to the taxi problem? That brings us back to the fact that why Hong Kong with much fewer cabs than us do not have taxi availability issue? One reason could be taxi there is individually owned and operated.
What about LTA? Like I say, taxi are not part of their transportation master plan. They are not in the mood to really solve the dearth of taxi despite so many complts from customers and taxi drivers. Hopefully, the taxi issue will not mar their excellent record in building up our world class road and rail infrastructure. I say this cuz every foreign visitor I picked up so far – either tourists or expatriates working here are full of praises for LTA’s remarkable achievements in managing our motor ways and traffic congestion. However, when it comes to taxi availability especially those expatriates (eg my Indian FT fren Manish cited earlier) working here it’s always thumbs down!
“Seoul plans to ban Uber and introduce its own GPS-based app for taxis
Uber may win some and lose some, but the battles rage on in cities where it operates. Seoul, Korea has now indicated that it would outright ban Uber, calling it illegal and harmful to taxi drivers. Uber operates its UberBLACK service there to connect professional chauffeurs to passengers via its app. That differs from UberX, UberPOP or Lyft — the services that have faced the most bans and protests — since those mostly use non-professional drivers. Seoul’s city council called Uber an illegal threat to traditional cabs, since its drivers didn’t have the usual insurance and safety controls. However, Uber told the WSJ that the city council’s comments “show Seoul is in danger of remaining trapped in the past and getting left behind by the global ‘sharing economy’ movement.” Despite that, the city must feel Uber is doing something right — it said that it would soon launch its own, Uber-like geo-location app to connect regular taxis to passengers.”
Why GrabTaxi is giving Singapore’s largest taxi operator a run for its money
April 21, 2014 by Hawyee Auyong
Hawyee is a research associate at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. Opinions expressed here are his own.
Friday was the first time I used the taxi booking appGrabTaxi to book a cab. I had a lunch appointment to go to and it had just started raining. None of the official apps from the taxi companies – Comfort, Trans-Cab, and SMRT – were successful in getting me a cab. The third try with GrabTaxi was successful. The cab arrived in a minute. On the way to lunch, I asked the driver about his experience with GrabTaxi and here’s what I found out.
GrabTaxi has a rapidly growing number of cab drivers using its app
Comfort, Singapore’s largest taxi company, has around 16,600 cabs plying the road. GrabTaxi has 10,000 registered drivers now in the country, making it the second largest ‘taxi operator’; and it’s rapidly signing up more drivers.
The way GrabTaxi broke into the Singapore market was by solving a demand and supply problem. When it launched, it absorbed the booking fee for commuters — the best it could do since it didn’t have a mechanism to pay commuters. On top of the normal booking charges, the company paid drivers a bonus of about $6 for each booking accepted. This in effect quadrupled the drivers’ cut from a normal booking. These two strategies allowed it to build up a large supply of both commuters and drivers from early on.
The driver I spoke to now takes more than 10 jobs a day from GrabTaxi, but only two from Comfort. The number of bookings now available through GrabTaxi is now so good that some taxi drivers are buying new phones just to be able to take GrabTaxi bookings (since the driver app is only available for Android phones currently).
GrabTaxi in Singapore easily completes more than 200,000 bookings a week now with its present fleet of drivers. It is arranging regular meetings with LTA to show the authorities that it has a higher rate of success in matching drivers to commuters than the current fleet operators.
GrabTaxi is more commuter- and driver-friendly
GrabTaxi’s app is fast. Because it is constantly updated on the locations of its drivers, it knows exactly which drivers to tender a booking to. All drivers within a certain radius of a booking is given a chance to bid. A notification pops up on each driver’s phone, and if many drivers bid for a job, the conflict is immediately resolved by Grab Taxi’s servers and the successful driver is notified immediately, and so is the commuter.
When a booking is made by a commuter, the phone shows in real-time a list of cabs being offered the job. Once a match is made, the commuter’s and the driver’s phone numbers are immediately made available to each other so that they can communicate about any unexpected issues. Dialing can be done from within the app.
Because drivers and commuters are likely to be using 3G devices, the response times are much faster than those from the operator’s terminals, which are on the much slower GPRS. This eliminates annoyances such as many drivers turning up for the same job or commuters getting on another cab because they think their booking was not successful.
For the commuter, using GrabTaxi eliminates the hassle of trying to book cabs using three or four different apps when he’s in a hurry for a taxi. Moreover, the real time feedback that a booking is unsuccessful means that the commuter can immediately try the booking again. Unlike Comfort’s app, Grab Taxi does not ask the commuter to “try again in ten minutes” (probably because Comfort’s servers are overloaded, or they do not want unsuccessful bookings to mar a KPI which LTA monitors).
By forcing the commuter to key in his destination, GrabTaxi also allows drivers to take bookings that are along their way if they are headed for a shift change. This is one of the major reasons why it is usually difficult to book a cab from all fleet operators during the popular shift change times.
GrabTaxi has changed the power dynamics between drivers and the cab companies
Comfort has leveraged its size to consolidate its market position. Having the largest fleet of taxis in Singapore means that commuters are more likely to book its taxis, and having more bookings makes it more attractive to drivers, who are charged a higher monthly rental rate of about S$10 (US$8) more than smaller operators.
Apps like GrabTaxi and Easy Taxi are eroding this market power. According to my driver, the number of taxi drivers waiting to get a Comfort cab has dropped drastically, to the extent that Comfort is now offering its existing drivers a referral fee to introduce new drivers.
By monitoring the number of bookings a driver takes through the operator’s terminal, Comfort can identify but not prove which of its drivers are now relying on GrabTaxi for bookings. My driver was called up by Comfort, which wanted to know why he was taking GrabTaxi bookings. He replied that it was because GrabTaxi was where the customers were.
(See more: Reinventing four wheels: 14 apps that are changing the way we get around)
Some drivers have already switched from Comfort to the smaller operators in order to take advantage of lower rentals. My driver is attached to his cab, but he says that Comfort has started to nitpick with drivers who refuse to stop using GrabTaxi. However, now that these drivers don’t need to rely on Comfort’s market power, they are more than happy to switch to an operator with cheaper rentals, so it’s Comfort’s loss either way.
Only recently has Comfort started to listen to its drivers in improving its app by requiring the commuter to enter a destination. Previously, it had ignored calls by drivers to do so.
GrabTaxi operates a high-margin business
GrabTaxi’s monetization scheme works as follows: drivers have to pre-pay GrabTaxi to be part of its ‘fleet’. When a new driver signs up, he is given a $10 credit from which commissions are deducted. The driver has to top up his account when it’s exhausted in order to receive more bookings. Receiving pre-payments allows Grab Taxi to invest the funds before it is spent.
Compare GrabTaxi’s business model with Comfort’s. GrabTaxi has almost no fixed costs beyond a nominal office and some IT infrastructure, whereas Comfort has to buy, service, and support a huge fleet of taxis and cohort of drivers.
Let’s say GrabTaxi eventually levels off at 15,000 drivers taking five bookings a day, from which it takes a S$0.30 cut each. This works out to a revenue of S$8 million (US$6.4 million) a year, just for being a middleman (and not counting advanced bookings). Moreover, GrabTaxi’s IT operating costs will fall every year because of Moore’s Law.
Comfort has to compete or die
I think at this point, it is a foregone conclusion that taxi bookings will eventually be dominated by operator-independent services, whether it is GrabTaxi or another company.
For too long, Comfort has relied on its market dominance and has stagnated in improving its services. The usefulness of its electronic terminals (developed in the early 2000s by ST Electronics and running Windows CE) for bookings is probably at an end.
The arrival of GrabTaxi has quickly shown how outdated parts of Comfort’s business model are. Seldom have I seen a market so quickly disrupted. To survive and thrive, Comfort needs to refocus on its core business, that of leasing cabs to drivers.
It needs to compete on offering better rental rates to drivers, and on providing cabs that are more reliable than other operators’. This means, among other things, a reversal of its policy of hollowing out its maintenance crew, which has seen an inexorable replacement of experienced local mechanics with cheaper foreign labour, and which many drivers have complained about.
This will be fun.
GrabTaxi is unable to confirm whether they indeed have 10,000 registered drivers in Singapore completing 200,000 bookings a week. Nonetheless, a GrabTaxi spokesperson has said that they have the second largest network of taxi drivers in Singapore, and are receiving one booking every two seconds regionally. Extrapolated, that’s about 302,400 bookings a week, which could make the estimated figure a bit of an exaggeration since GrabTaxi operates in six cities.
Comfort has yet to respond to Tech in Asia.