Steering taxi apps in right direction

Third-party taxi booking applications are regarded by many as liberating in speedily and seamlessly matching the commuter with a taxi driver. Within the tangled web of roads of a metropolis, each constantly searches for the other in a largely inefficient, hit-and-miss way - a Brownian motion that taxi operators and the regulator strive to orchestrate with varying degrees of success. For example, taxi booking systems tapping General Packet Radio Service technology have made a difference but the pool of available taxis, run separately by six operators, is limited by the service one picks. Smartphone booking apps have changed the game significantly by directly linking customers and drivers, embracing all taxi fleets, optimising the match process and rendering it visually on the screen (for example, by showing all the taxis roving in one's location).

Such is the technology's impact - finetuned by insurgents like Grab Taxi, Uber, Easy Taxi and Hailo - that the Land Transport Authority, too, is developing a similar crowd-sourcing mobile app called Taxi-Taxi@SG. And such is the ire of industry incumbents, who tend to be held to strict standards, that some cities have either banned or limited the ambit of these apps. Singapore is to follow suit by subjecting taxi apps to certain regulatory requirements, like registering services.

Of course, neither technology nor regulation can on their own sufficiently address the fundamental need to match supply with demand, particularly during peak periods, when it rains and at quieter locations. Without an adequate number of vehicles and drivers - transport providers have bemoaned the dearth of relief drivers - the choices of commuters will be constrained. But to throw open the gates to all and sundry might lead to more private cars doubling as pirate cabs, with all the attendant risks of vehicle safety, below-par or discriminatory service, unfair pricing practices, and insufficient insurance cover. Also, any substantial attrition of earnings of licensed cabbies could conceivably impinge on the major transport providers' ability to meet mandated quality of service standards, including minimum mileage requirements.

Nonetheless, transport apps are a welcome addition in offering greater convenience and additional modes of finding not just a cab but also private car-leasing and ridesharing options. Disruptive technologies by their very nature can be expected to reorder markets and consumer-provider relationships, break old rules, and create new risks. A "smart nation's" capacity to deal with such changes will determine how happily it makes the most of innovation. Over-regulating the process can be a killjoy.