Cannix Yau –South China Morning Post
Dogged by controversy, the ride-hailing company admits its past mistakes and wants dialogue with authorities to address city’s mobility future Uber’s head of strategy and planning for Asia-Pacific Emilie Potvin tells the Post it was excited to hear Carrie Lam’s policy address
Controversial ride-hailing firm Uber has called for a partnership with the Hong Kong government to address the city’s mobility future as it vowed to change its unruly behaviour and to mend relations with the local taxi industry.
In an interview with the Post, Emilie Potvin, head of strategy and planning for Asia-Pacific, expressed the firm’s wish for dialogue with the government about how it could offer solutions for Hong Kong’s plans to become a smart city, an objective set out by Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor.
Potvin said Uber was particularly happy to see Lam’s recent announcement of a review of outdated laws that impede the development of innovation and technology.
In her latest policy address in October, Lam said the newly formed Policy Innovation and Co-ordination Office (PICO) was responsible for the review and it was consulting relevant sectors and sorting out the review’s scope.
“An important objective in promoting smart city development is to enhance the government’s capability in innovation and the standard of city management,” Lam said in the policy address.
“We got very excited … We think that this is a step in the right direction,” Potvin said.
“When we looked at her policy address, we were able to see that there are a lot of synergies between our company and some of the objectives that she put forward,” she asserted.
Potvin also stressed that Uber too aims to build “smart cities of tomorrow”. “What do smart cities of the 21st century look like? Mobility is a big part of that,” she said.
Potvin insisted that Uber saw hopes to form a partnership with the Hong Kong government in achieving its objectives, and having a dialogue was the starting point.
But Uber has struggled to get a break in Hong Kong where ride-sharing is illegal. The city, with a population of over 7 million, is served by over 18,000 licensed taxis and about 40,000 drivers.
With about 30,000 drivers registered with Uber in Hong Kong, they risk being prosecuted for carrying passengers for reward without a hire-car permit.
However, the current private car-rental permit scheme is capped at 1,500 with stringent requirements for eligibility, something that Potvin argued does not make sense and should be reviewed to allow Uber to be regulated in Hong Kong.
Uber has been dogged in the past by controversy over the pushy approach adopted by its former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, and the company has had regular run-ins with city authorities around the world, including Hong Kong. Potvin admitted the more abrasive style of the company under Kalanick was wrong but she said that, under the leadership of current CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, the firm was willing to change and mend relations with governments.
“Uber has now been very vocal about saying that we made mistakes in the past. There were moments in the past when we did not behave appropriately,” she said.
“We apologise for the mistakes we made in the past. We want to look at the future. And we want to look at that together in partnerships with those governments and that’s very important to us.”
But Potvin admitted that despite making many requests, so far no successful contact has been made with the government. “We’ve been knocking on many, many doors to be able to have that dialogue … at the moment we are still waiting,” she said.
Uber Hong Kong is also engaging in dialogue with some taxi operators about the possibility of forming a working partnership. The local taxi sector has vehemently opposed Uber’s entry to the city’s transport market saying the firm would threaten their survival.
“We need to have a dialogue with taxis because if we live in a world where it is Uber versus Taxis, it’s not good for anybody,” she said.
However, Potvin was upbeat about Uber prospects of eventually resolving its conflicts with the local taxi industry, whom she said would benefit from working under a joint platform with Uber.
“It’s still about building trust … what a lot of taxi companies realise is that e-hailing is the future. How do you adapt to the future and work in partnerships? That’s what we really want to do,” she said.