Competition among taxi and private hire-car booking companies is heating up in Australia, with operators accusing each other of dirty tricks, sabotage and aggressive driver poaching tactics.
Operators have complained of rivals booking and cancelling rides on competing apps to capture drivers' mobile numbers to try to recruit them.
Other alleged tactics include rivals taking short trips to recruit drivers and an incumbent taxi network allegedly bribing drivers to hand over payment devices provided by independent booking app Ingogo.
There are also allegations that efforts to book advertising on the back of taxis have been stymied by powerful industry players who have threatened people who consider carrying the ads.
In the United States the start-up news website TechCrunch recently reported claims that private hire-car booking app Uber had its New York staff order and then cancel more than 100 cars from competitor Gett. Uber was accused of using the drivers' phone numbers to offer them cash incentives to defect.
Uber later apologised for the "too aggressive" practice in a statement and said it would ask teams globally to "curtail activities that seek lead generation in this manner".
Andrew Campbell, co-founder of Australia's GoCatch, a taxi-booking app and payment service that claims to have signed up 16,000 taxi drivers, said he had seen similar tactics used by competitors in Sydney, but wouldn't say which of two main rivals – Uber and Ingogo – used them. (Ingogo, GoCatch and Uber all offer taxi-booking services in Australia, while Uber also offers private-hire car services via its app.)
"We have seen our competitors ordering taxis and then cancelling them and we've blocked competitors [and] tricksters from using the application," Campbell told Fairfax Media.
"Competitors have also tried spreading misinformation about us to taxi drivers."
Yet despite the tricks – which Campbell said he did not partake in – he wasn't too worried.
"Whether or not they play dirty tricks is not a concern. We're building a business regardless of any dirty tricks from our competitors; we play things with a pretty straight bat," he said.
Uber Sydney general manager David Rohrsheim denied that he and his team had booked and cancelled trips on rival apps, but said Uber did use rival services in an attempt to recruit drivers.
"We haven't been booking and cancelling services [in Sydney]," Rohrsheim said.
Ingogo managing director Hamish Petrie said his team had never participated in such practices either, but suspected they were used against his company.
Petrie said he has seen "multiple job requests from certain locations [and] different offices and places of abode" being logged that were suspicious. Those users were blocked "because of ongoing inappropriate use of the app", he said.
"You can tell they're not doing it to genuinely catch a taxi, they're doing it to irritate drivers."
But it's not only new app entrants partaking in alleged sabotage, Petrie said.
"We actually caught the operations manager for a large incumbent playing around on our application in Melbourne and we wrote them a legal letter to tell them to stop," he said.
"They were stupid enough to answer the phone when I actually called them. I said, 'Sorry, have I got someone from X company there?' And they said 'Yep'. And I said, 'So what's your role there?' And they said, 'I'm the operations manager'. Pretty stupid really."
Petrie alleged the incumbent put through fake jobs and cancelled them while trying to figure out how the Ingogo app worked so that they could stop it ordering taxis over its service.
"What we do in Victoria is, if we don't have [an Ingogo] cab in the nearby area, we actually offload the jobs to the local network. So we, in the background of the app, fill out a users' pick-up information on the [incumbent network's] online booking site. So we were actually giving them a customer, but they didn't want the customer to have that easy experience on our application ... So they were figuring out how to block our application from giving their drivers work."
Petrie claimed a network also tried to bribe some drivers to sell Ingogo's billing equipment (an iPhone and printer), which it provides for free.
"For legal reasons I don't want to go into who that [competitor] is," Petrie said.
Ingogo has now changed its policy, asking for a fee from drivers for lost equipment.
Petrie claimed Ingogo has also recently been blocked from advertising on the back of taxis.
"We've been trying to ... spend $100,000 ... and the two advertising networks, when it gets down to the nitty-gritty of implementing it, won't actually run the ads," he said.
He claimed this was because taxi networks were threatening cab owners with being put at the back of service queues for repairs to their vehicles if they ran them.
Technology analyst Guy Cranswick said it was only natural for a commercial turf war to erupt and said there was "some plausibility" to the claims made "which requires further investigation".
"These sorts of alleged tactics ... are the sorts of things that have occurred, I believe, in the taxi industry here and elsewhere over [some] time," Cranswick, of research firm IBRS, said.
"It's happened in the transport industry with trucking routes and contracts and it has happened, as we found out again [recently], in the construction industry. So playing commercial turf wars about who has access to what routes, kinds of customers and so forth is not new. These [commercial turf wars are] now just going through the new technologies that are in the cars."
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