My Uber life
It's almost peak hour in Sydney, the city the designers gave up on because of its harbour. If they'd filled in it in and put roads on the top, a driver could navigate without a mapping mind meld.
But I found the building in Broadmeadow and it had a cluster of empty taxis outside. Buzzed up to the second floor, a hub-drub of voices led me down the hall to the open office suite. Two trestle tables spanned the centre, with several taxi driver types on one side with an impossibly young guy talking earnestly at them.
On the left was another table, with two operatives on laptops, each interviewing expectant men. The atmosphere was one of blind hope. A plastic tub with Devices and windscreen mounting kits was on the left end of the table. Up on the mezzanine, a banner hastily tied in place.
In the far corner sat the controller behind a large iMac.The greeter Tom raced over, shook my hand, and established I wanted to be a driver. 'Just fill out this form', he said.
Handing it back, I told him I already had a Police Criminal Recordcheck – the Controller glanced at it and said they needed to do – and pay for – their own. Tom then scrutinized my driver's history, which I'd bought from the motor registry earlier.
'Oh I'm sorry', he said with passable empathy. 'You've had a major infringement with four demerit points within five years. You'll have to come back when the period is over'.
'OK', I said, 'but that was a double demerit point weekend, and it was more than four years ago.'
'Ah well there is a work-around', Tom said helpfully, 'if you get a Hire Car or Taxi authority you can drive straight away'. I pulled out my Bus Driver authority. 'Does this do it for you?'
Big smile. 'You are right to go! Just head upstairs and sit through the training video. It's on a loop'.
20 minutes later, fully trained, I am handed on to Dwayne in the corner. He checks my license, passport, car registration and insurance documents. He doesn't query that they are in the name of my media company.
'Here we go', he says handing me The Device (an iPhone 4), a windscreen mount kit, and a recharge cable.
Ring! He takes a call on his mobile, which appears to be the Sydney recruiting number. 'You'll have to come in and see us', he repeats several times, apparently avoiding questions. 'We aren't here again until Saturday'. It looks like this whole office is packed and flown elsewhere. These four young guys are talent agents.
'Just one thing before I go, Dwayne', I say. 'What happens if I'm penalized and fined?'
He stops and looks up, all serious. This is the flaw in the execution, as the actual transport of random public WITHOUT an appropriate accreditation, vis-a-vis a taxi plate or hire car licence, is wildly illegal in NSW. Indeed in most jurisdictions that Uber enters.
'Where did you hear about that?'
'I read it online', I reply.
'Well, when we started back in April 2014 the Department of Transport fined five drivers $1,800 each. The fine isn't a demerit on your license, and it isn't a criminal conviction. So long as the fine is paid, there is no problem.' He is very sincere and I believe him because I've done the research. I won't abide by a conviction here. But he doesn't know what I know.
'So who pays the fine?' I ask.
Click! 'We are a world wide organisation and we have to look after the drivers', Dwayne says with utmost sincerity, a smile creasing his pimpled jaw. 'We paid. And even if the fine were the maximum of $110,000 we would have paid that too. Now the Minister is right behind us, it was just politics'.
I walk out empowered and amazed how the NSW authorities protect the taxi community, and install The Device on the inside lower right of my windscreen. I drive my freshly washed and vacuumed small car into Sydney's traffic. I am amongst taxi cabs, with plates valued at as much as $400,000, and Hire Cars who are registered for well under 10 grand.
There's a disconnect on the bust road. We are not equals – a taxi can pick up anyone on the street, a Hirw Car needs to be booked. And then there is me, connected by 4G to a server in somewhere.
A few kilometres down the road The Device starts to pulse. '3 Minutes' it promises. I hit the screen, and it vectors me to a now dark street. I slow and approach the house where outside Raphael – the screen name of the client – is waiting with two friends. They have between them three enormous bags, and three carry on bags. More than any average car can handle, let alone my compact.
'What do you want to do?' I ask. 'We'll get another one', he says dismissively.
My first Uber client is a dud.