MPs miss the point over how ride-sharing service Uber works
COMMENT: Politicians and technology have often been uneasy bedfellows. For example, take former US senator Ted Stevens, who bafflingly referred to the internet as "a series of tubes".
It was an exercise in stamina and patience when Uber took on a room full of politicians on Thursday - most of whom had no idea how the ride-sharing technology worked.
The exchanges between Uber's New Zealand general manager Richard Menzies and MPs on the transport committee bordered on ridiculous at times.
It came as close as it could to Stevens' "tubes" remarks when despite being in charge of regulating telecommunications in 2006 he showed no evidence of understanding what the internet was.
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Menzies was at Parliament to call for looser regulations in the Land Transport Amendment Bill to allow Uber to operate lawfully in New Zealand.
But MPs spent the best part of his 20-minute submission tying themselves up in knots over questions that were completely irrelevant to how Uber operates.
No matter how many times Menzies tried, he (through no fault of his own) failed, to get through to MPs that Uber was an app service and passengers couldn't simply "hail" a driver or nab one from a rank.
National's Alastair Scott kicked off with his concern that "you could get some gypsy operators who are not licensed by anyone appearing on the taxi rank."
Moroney, Labour's transport spokesperson, offered the more politically-correct term of "cowboys" but Scott wasn't bothered, quipping, "cowboys, gypsies, whatever".
Next it was Moroney's turn, asking, "how does the consumer know - because there's no branding - about what service they're using?"
Menzies: "A consumer knows a car is an Uber vehicle because when they request a ride through the Uber app they see the licence plate and photo of the driver."
Moroney: "I understand what your company's doing, I'm asking you a question for the great unwashed of us around looking for a ride and this bill actually allows other services to operate without any branding. How do we know what's regulated?"
Menzies: "That's a situation that already exists in the market under the current regulations where you have private hire drivers who are not required to have any signage and they have different regulations...."
Next the committee chair, National MP Jonathan Young, weighed in asking, "what would the driver then do if somebody tapped on his window, would he say you need to go through the app?"
Menzies: "Yes, any ride facilitated through Uber needs to go through the app - that's how the entire service works...it's important to note Uber doesn't work in the rank and hail space. That's very much the taxi market."
Young: "But what I'm saying is they might be parked on the street waiting for a notification to come through for a pick up and somebody might come and say, 'that's an Uber car, I'll just walk up'. The system won't allow for that?"
Given Uber cars are citizens' private vehicles National MP Maurice Williamson - a "massive Uber fan" (although he prefers the VIP service offered in the US) - couldn't help but mockingly point out it would be impossible to know "what an Uber car looks like".
Young countered with, "you might recognise it from using it a couple of days before".
An understandably exhausted Menzies replied, "the request has to be made through the Uber app because that's how the entire system works."
Uber have been in the firing line of Transport Minister Simon Bridges for not complying with passenger (P) endorsements - a vetting process that checks criminal and medical records amongst other things.
Bridges has threatened to take them off the road if they don't start complying but Uber has softened its stance in the last few weeks and agreed to get P endorsements for all its drivers immediately if Bridges adopts the proposed cheaper and faster process.
But that didn't stop Moroney wrapping up the comedy of errors meeting by demanding Menzies confirm Uber "won't be breaking the law" in future.
And with that Young had finally found an appropriate point to end the meeting.
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