Of Taxis and Smart Phones: Balancing Innovation and Regulation

Sharon Masterson, Corporate Partnership Board, International Transport Forum
ShaSharon Mastersonron

Sharon Masterson

Necessity is the mother of invention – or is it? It could be argued that the time-honoured adage only holds when we know what we want or need. But what if we don’t? “If I had asked people what they wanted”, Henry Ford famously quipped, “they would have said ‘faster horses’.”

While the car was a revolutionary innovation, it was not immediately disruptive. Early cars were expensive luxury items, so the market for horses and carts remained intact until the Ford Model T created a mass market by making the new technology affordable, thanks to more efficient production methods.

What the transport sector is facing today in many areas follows a similar pattern. True, this time around, innovations are not as disruptive to the eye as motor cars replacing horses. Instead, current disruptive forces in the mobility sector hide under the hood of largely familiar-looking vehicles and in the invisible “cloud” – for instance in the shape of autonomous driving, electric mobility or app-based transport services.

But there are parallels. Take ride-hailing via smart phones: The technology has been on the market for several years. Not even the leading players like Uber or Didi Chuxing, its Chinese rival, have come to dominate the provision of mobility. They are rapidly gaining ground against the traditional forms of moving about in a car, however, and within a decade or two could well become dominant. In a recent survey in China, 8 out of 10 respondents aged 18 to 35 said they had already used a car-hailing app.

The potential of app-based transport has certainly fired up investors: Uber recently received USD 3.5 billion from Saudi Arabia’s sovereign fund, and Didi Chuxing raised USD 7 billion from investors and lenders, including 1 billion from Apple. Today, Uber is the world’s most valuable start up, with a market capitalisation of USD 62.5 billion. Conversely, the Nasdaq-listed Medallion Financial, a huge provider of loans to buy taxi licenses, has lost well over 50% of its stock value since December 2014.

Policy makers in many countries have been caught somewhat off guard by the rapid rise of app-based ride-hailing platforms. In many countries, regulation has been lagging and policymakers struggle in balancing the need to ensure public safety, consumer protection and tax compliance with the potential benefits: higher efficiency of transport, better service, more transparency and the simple fact that consumers like the convenience of pushing a smartphone button to order a ride.

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