Vancouver's taxi companies are launching an app that allows customers to order cabs from their smartphones – offering the same sort of easy-to-use technology that has fuelled Uber's success while continuing their campaign to keep the controversial ride-sharing service shut out of the city.
The city's four major cab providers – Yellow Cab, Black Top & Checker Cabs, MacLure's Cabs and Vancouver Taxi – are launching the eCab app on Wednesday. The app, which is already in use in a number of European cities, allows customers to hail a taxi, track the car, pay with their credit card and rate the driver.
Similar features have contributed to Uber's popularity, though the cab companies – which have publicly opposed Uber and launched a short-lived court challenge last year – insist their new app isn't related.
"We're looking for new ideas," said Kulwant Sahota, president of Yellow Cab and a driver for 20 years. "As far as we're concerned, Uber is on its own. We need to do our part and the rest will take care of itself."
The taxi industry, the city and the B.C. government have all opposed Uber, particularly amid rumours last year that it was preparing to set up in Vancouver. It has launched in other cities over the objections of local officials.
The taxi campanies, which argue Uber is dangerous because its UberX drivers aren't licensed and don't have to abide by the same laws as licensed cabbies, went to court to block Uber last year but dropped the case after Uber suspended its plans.
"We don't have any problem competing with anyone, as long as it's a fair playing field," Mr. Sahota said.
The app will let customers pick from a standard fleet of 608 taxis operating across the city, with an additional 99 vehicles out on Friday and Saturday evenings.
"It's a big change in the cab business in North America," said Carolyn Bauer of the Vancouver Taxi Association.
Ms. Bauer, also a general manager at Yellow Cab, said the city's cab companies starting looking at options for joining forces about a year ago to address issues they were having serving their customers.
"During rush hours and peak times, we were having difficulties in servicing some of our customers," Ms. Bauer said. "By integrating all four companies, we felt it would help our consumers and the public in being able to get the closest car of all four companies."
They found the eCab app during a conference in Texas and recruited officials to begin meetings with the Vancouver companies.
In an e-mailed response to a Globe and Mail request for comment, the B.C. Transportation Ministry called plans to use the new app "good news for consumers. We are encouraged that licensed operators are embracing these kinds of new technologies that improve customer convenience and let passengers get around more efficiently in Vancouver."
Ms. Bauer said the cab sector is a "peaks and valleys" business, with drivers either having no business or too much business, so the industry realized it has to go for a "closest-car" approach to dispatching vehicles.
Saif Ullah, general manager at Black Top & Checker Cabs, said it was "high time" that the companies co-operated like this, although they would still compete for business.
"If someone wants Black Top, they will call Black Top. This is for people who are desperate, in need of cabs and want a cab in no time. That's the reason we have got together to help these customers."
Mr. Ullah said technology is allowing the pursuit of this plan, which would have been unthinkable years ago. "With this concept, the trip will go to the closest cab. We've tested it. It's working fine."
Still, Mr. Ullah denies that eCab is a defensive measure against Uber. "It's not anything to do with the fight against Uber," he said.
In a statement, the communications department for the city of Vancouver said staff are working with various stakeholders to look at issues around vehicles for hire.
"Uber has been identified as a stakeholder and they are a participant in this process as it goes forward," the statement said.
It added that a full report to council is expected by year's end, and it's unlikely the city would issue any new licences until the report is presented to council.