Reinventing the wheel

    21 September 2013

    Until recently, leaving a big London party or a Mayfair club at closing time meant joining a forest of waving arms: fellow departees jostling for the attention of passing cabs and watching with envy as the guests with private drivers fled the scene. Not any more. Step out of a glamorous fundraiser or launch party now and you will be met by tens of low-key cars, one of which knows your name and your destination. ‘You come out of something like a Burberry dinner, and it’s like a black sea of Addison Lee,’ as one fashion editor puts it.

    This is how smart London gets around nowadays — in the back of app-summoned cars with well-dressed drivers, and all at short notice. Movers, shakers, models and socialites don’t need private drivers any more, and they certainly don’t want to stand waving on street corners: they just need their smartphones. Tech-savvy companies like Addison Lee, Green Tomato and Uber are employing algorithms and glossy apps to deliver cheap, flexible urban transport that appeals to the Cara Delevingne set and City types alike. Less rosy is the picture for some of the drivers, who are working longer hours than ever and say they aren’t getting a fair deal in the private hire boom. ‘I don’t know many people who have full-time drivers any more,’ says Clementine Churchill from concierge giant Quintessentially — quite a statement given the company’s famously ostentatious membership. ‘It increasingly makes sense for people to book on demand when they need a car, and if our members are looking to get from A to B, they will use Addison Lee and Uber.’ They are very different companies — one a massive London mini-cab firm founded in 1975, the other a San Francisco start-up which has proved popular in cities like LA with unreliable or nonexistent taxi service and is now spreading around the world at a rate of knots — but what they and others like ethical taxi company Green Tomato have in common is tech.

    The new private hire trend has come about because of the convenience of well-made apps that magic cars out of thin air and sophisticated in-car systems that email you your journey particulars as soon as you finish. Green Tomato, who do big business for the BBC and whose cars are Prius hybrids, boast that the average time between booking on their app and collection is just under 12 minutes, while Addison Lee says ten and Uber says seven, ‘and four minutes in Mayfair’. It is Uber’s prices that are London’s best-kept secret: a trip from Kensington to Soho in one of their cheaper cars is about £2 cheaper than a black cab, although many suspect their prices will rise when they become established. Addison Lee cars cost at least a few pounds more for a journey like that but begin to make financial sense with slightly longer trips where you don’t pay to sit in traffic. Last year their app generated more than £50 million worth of business.

    The fashion editor recalls seeing models ‘discreetly planning their exit from boring parties’ by tapping away at their phones on the dinner table and making their excuses minutes later. Among Uber’s early adopters since it launched in the UK in July last year have been the Made In Chelsea gang, who use its Uber X service (Audi A6s, Priuses and the like — many owned by the drivers) for daytime trips and its Uber Lux service (BMW 7 series, Mercedes S-Class) for nights out. The now widespread use of Addison Lee, Uber and Green Tomato by film sets, fashion shows and record labels means ‘You wouldn’t believe who I had in my car’ stories are more believable than ever.

    While Uber drivers tend to juggle several driving jobs, with membership giving them an easy opportunity to make some extra cash, they are a cheery exception. In general the drivers commanded effortlessly with three swipes of your finger don’t always seem as enamoured with their side of the bargain. Everyone has a story about private hire drivers slamming boot doors or losing their temper, but given their worsening financial lot and lengthening hours we probably shouldn’t be surprised. Addison Lee drivers rent their cars for £150 per week — and £350 for an executive car — from a company called Eventech Ltd, which shares an office with the firm and has the same owners. The more journeys they do, the less they pay Eventech. Once the additional £40 weekly insurance and £12 car wash are added up, drivers can face a struggle to make a decent living. One Addison Lee driver, who works six days a week, told Spectator Life: ‘If you really want to make ends meet with these people [Addison Lee], you have to work at least 12 hours a day.’ Another told us: ‘The turnover of drivers is absolutely astronomical, just because people can’t earn a living here. I’m earning £500 less than I was ten years ago.’ Uber’s drivers are a mix of full-timers and chauffeurs who take work from the app when their oligarch is on holiday — and, crucially, many own their cars.

    An Addison Lee Executive driver (they have 250 Mercedes E and S-Class cars on top of their 4,000 people carriers) says the company’s new-found fan base among London’s movers and shakers hasn’t led to earnings trickling down. Account jobs (a staggering 73 of the FTSE 100 have accounts with them and many private individuals do too, and one driver estimates than 90 per cent of jobs are now on account) only make the drivers a fraction of the money from cash jobs and often involve more waiting time. ‘On some jobs, they take 60 per cent,’ he driver says. To add minor insult to injury, when picking up executives and stars for Sony, a message pops up on drivers’ screens warning them not to ask for autographs or pictures. Interestingly, the firm’s £300 million takeover by the Carlyle Group in April seems to be having an effect. Usually the points targets that drivers have to hit to lower the cost of their vehicle hire are slightly reduced during the summer while business is slow. ‘Carlyle haven’t done that this summer,’ one driver told us.

    Addison Lee told us: ‘While times have been more difficult for drivers and the industry over the recession, drivers representing Addison Lee are making more than they were last year. Consistent with previous years, our driver scheme takes into account seasonal fluctuations in demand.’ The company added that it had seen no increase in driver turnover.

    As well as getting Harry Styles from A to B and ferrying most of the nightly visitors to clubs like Soho House and the Arts Club (both of whom are partnered with Uber), the technology fosters the illusion that everyone has a chauffeur. The tagline on Uber’s app is ‘Everyone’s Private Driver’, and the company avoids any branding on cars in order to maintain that illusion.

    The investment that firms like Uber, Green Tomato and Addison Lee are making in their mobile technology should help them sustain London’s love affair with app-booked private hire: the latter employs 24 programmers. Whether either the success of black cab hailing app Hailo or worsening driver morale will undermine them, only time will tell. For now though, London is enjoying having a private driver at its fingertips.