The outskirts of Zurich on a sweltering afternoon. The Local is waiting, smart phone in hand, for its private driver. A text rings in:
“Robert (5.0 stars) will pick you up in 15 minutes.”
Minutes later, a shiny black Mercedes S500 pulls up and driver Robert, clad in suit and tie, welcomes us. He asks where we would like to go and what language we would like to speak. Then we settle back and enjoy the air-conditioned seats, TV screens and in-seat massages.
Welcome to Uber, the first service of its kind in Switzerland. Officially launched on July 25th at the Baur au Lac hotel in Zurich, Uber produces an app which allows customers to book rides with limousine companies and private drivers using their mobile phone.
“It works well,” explains driver Robert, “because I have five or six breaks in my work today, and I can fill those gaps with trips for Uber.”
To celebrate its Zurich launch Uber, which is linked to between 30 and 50 taxi/limousine companies in Zurich, offered complementary rides to customers to and from the hotel. The Local was following in the footsteps of Swiss tennis star Stanislas Wawrinka, who became the Rider 0 for Uber Zurich during the app's testing phase in June.
No exchange of cash
Offering an alternative to taxis, the company claims to have hooked up thousands of drivers with thousands of customers using iPhone and Android technology. It takes the fare from the customer's pre-registered credit card so no money is exchanged.
Customers pay a little more than in a taxi – our ride of 20 minutes and 8.5 kilometres would have cost 45 francs – but in return they get to ride in a luxury vehicle.
“[Although many taxis in Zurich are already luxury car brands] our feedback tells us that the quality of taxis here varies a lot,” says head of operations Ryan Graves at the launch. “What Uber can provide is dependability. You hit the button and know the car is on its way; you know the driver has been vetted, and that the vehicle is going to meet a certain level of quality. It should feel like the same experience every time, so our motto is 'Everyone's private driver'.”
But the launch of the ride-share program, which is already available in 36 cities worldwide, is not without controversy in Zurich.
Unhappy taxi drivers
According to Liz Spengler of the Taxiverband Zurich (Taxi Union Zurich): “The taxi industry in Zurich is unhappy with the launch of Uber. We feel that customers will probably be deceived by the dishonest competition; the drivers charge will far too much and probably earn very little; and, on top of that, the taxi and limousine market here is already saturated.”
Zurich's taxi industry is not alone in its reaction to Uber. In June, the company received a “cease-and-desist” letter from the city of Los Angeles, following claims it was running “rogue taxis” that are “bypassing all safety regulations created to protect riders and drivers”.
Graves is quick to defend Uber: “While taxi associations or companies may look upon Uber negatively, the drivers who partner with us love the service. This business wouldn't be scaling like it is if we were ripping people off. There is a level of trust that is core to who we are. I think the people at the [taxi] agencies are nervous that the business is changing and that they are going to have to work hard to keep up.”
He adds that Uber has teams in each city to check each driver is properly licensed to local standards. And, in a bid to encourage a quality service and good behaviour, drivers and customers have the chance to rate the other.
“We are always looking for ways to make our service better and I think Zurich will challenge us to do that,” says Graves. “There is a high respect for quality here. In this market, people really understand what quality means and we want to deliver that to them.”
Uber was founded as UberCab by three entrepreneurs, including the current CEO, Travis Kalanick, in 2009. After being accused of illegal taxi operation in San Francisco, the company in 2011 changed its name to Uber. It expanded beyond North America to launch services in Europe in December 2011.
The company hopes to expand into Switzerland's other major cities but, for now, it will be concentrating on meeting Zurich's high standards.