Arguably one of the hottest new app in Singapore and Southeast Asia, GrabTaxi is currently connecting cab drivers and passengers at a rate of 2 bookings per second now. There are reportedly over 400,000 monthly active users using the app now to book taxis.
But did you know that before the taxi app trend started, Mr Tan Kin Lian already saw the opportunity and built a mobile app for taxi-bookings?
Just a bit of context before we head into the topic, GrabTaxi launched its service in Singapore in October 2013. EasyTaxi on the other hand, started its Singapore operations in December 2013. Uber started a little earlier: February 2013. However, Uber only launched its taxi booking service UberTaxi in Singapore September earlier this year, later than both GrabTaxi and EasyTaxi in the quest to be the default-taxi booking app in Singapore.
Even before the hype of taxi booking apps, Mr Tan Kin Lian, former Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of NTUC Income as well as a candidate for the 2011 Singapore Presidential Election, had already seen this coming, and built a mobile app for taxi-bookings.
“TABS (taxi automated booking service) allows you to book taxi for a booking fee of $1. This is more convenient than stopping a taxi on the roadside. You can book the taxi using the browser of any mobile phone (www.tabs.sg/mobile). Some taxi drivers may be willing to pick up the customer for $1, if the customer is nearby. It is better than sweeping the road to look for a customer (no booking fee). Try it.”
In an email interview with Vulcan Post, Mr Tan told us that back in 2012, most bookings were made directly to Comfort taxis, the main taxi operator in Singapore.
“I felt that an independent taxi-booking service will benefit the other taxi companies. It will allow them to implement taxi-booking, without having to spend a lot of money on the booking infrastructure that is similar to the one used by Comfort,” Mr Tan told Vulcan Post.
The benefits were straightforward, even with the booking fee of $1, many passengers were willing to pay the fee for a taxi to come to their home. For drivers, they get to benefit during the off peak period to get a $1 booking fee incurred by TABS.
“They do not have to ply on road to look for a passenger,” added Mr Tan.
An Idea Ahead Of Its Time
Mr Tan spent three years back in the early 2010s to test the different models of the booking system.
“Under my system, passengers’ requests are stored in the database for a taxi driver to respond to. The taxi driver can also actively search the database for a waiting passenger, who is nearby, when they are able to pick a passenger. Unlike the traditional approach, where the customer request is broadcasted to several taxis nearby for the first taxi to accept, drivers can actively look for more jobs on the database,” Mr Tan told Vulcan Post.
Taxi drivers can select any customer, call the customer on the phone, or view the map for the location of the customer. The service is free for drivers for the first 3 months, and subsequently a monthly fee of S$15 is applicable.
The launch was picked up by mainstream medias and Mr Tan also did a presentation with his personal audio narration, which explains how the TABS service works. While the idea seems to be reasonably well thought out, TABS did not take off. Mr Tan wrote on 19th February 2012 in his personal blog that it has only registered 47 customers and 26 taxi drivers.
Mr Tan attributed the low response rate to the fact that taxi companies were not prepared to support the new approach, and that taxi companies had to comply with the service standards set by the Land Transport Authority.
Fast forward to today where smartphone penetration in Singapore is through the roof, Mr Tan acknowledged that taxi-booking apps can work now because more passengers and taxi drivers use smartphones, compared to two years ago.
Of course, GrabTaxi, Easy Taxi and Uber are all actively spending money to get more taxi drivers to use their platform. This was something which TABS did not do. Currently, Uber is reported to pay drivers S$5 for every trip they complete; GrabTaxi on the other hand, is offering drivers S$100 worth of cash, credits and giveaways; while Easy Taxi offers drivers S$50 for 25 trips, S$150 for 50 trips, and S$300 for 100 trips per week.
Crystal Balling Again For The Future
TABS has since been taken offline, and will only remain as an idea ahead of its time.
What opportunities do Mr Tan see in the transportation industry? The public bus system: specifically, a simpler way to take a bus to your destination and to find the arrival time of all the buses. While there are several apps in the market now that allows you to do all these, the innovation lies in making these apps easier to use.
Is Mr Tan working on them? Maybe, as he teased us with a “Shhh..” when asked what is he currently working on now.
In the meantime, Mr Tan is still sticking to the traditional method of calling the taxi operator’s company hotline whenever he needs a taxi. And while everyone else is busy using GrabTaxi, Easy Taxi or Uber, Mr Tan has tried neither any of them.
“I have not used these new booking services. I call the taxi company hotline, either Comfort or SMRT.”