Uber Launches in Berlin – and Doesn’t Rule Out Traditional Taxi Service

By David Knight |

Uber has finally launched officially here after weeks of ‘secret’ testing – and it may be set to change how Berliners get around town. The on-demand limo platform, which allows you to summon a fancy car and besuited driver in seconds, chose the capital for its first German foray despite many suggesting Munich or Frankfurt might have been a better bet.

The San Francisco-based company’s first CEO and current VP of operations Ryan Graves has been in town to mark the launch, and he told Silicon Allee that everybody thinks Uber is a great idea – just not in their town. But he believes Europe in general and Berlin in particular are ideal for the platform, and he refused to rule out the possibility that the company will eventually expand into the more traditional taxi market.

Uber’s core service is designed for people who want to get from A to B with a little more style, hence the slogan: “Everyone’s private driver.” Users download the app on iPhone, Android or Blackberry and sign up with their credit card details. They can input where they want to go and can see where the nearest Uber is and when it will arrive. The cars themselves are premium quality – think Mercedes S-Class or Porsche Cayenne – and the drivers are professional. Money is transferred automatically upon arrival.

The model has worked extremely well elsewhere, especially in the US, and the company is now expanding aggressively in Europe. Berlin is the fifth European city launch for Uber following London, Paris, Amsterdam and Stockholm, and there are already cars on the ground in Milan (and Singapore) as part of the semi-secret beta phase.

‘Everyone’s a Skeptic’

Uber allows ordinary people to experience the kind of transport normally reserved for the well-off, while providing drivers and limo companies with the chance to better utilise their expensive cars. Ryan said despite the reservations of some in Berlin, he was extremely optimistic about the city: “Every person is a skeptic about it [Uber] working in their own market. I’m from San Diego and I had only taken taxis seven or eight times in my life – I lived there for 20 years. And I thought, it’s just not going to work, people drive. [But] San Diego is currently blowing up for Uber.”

Berlin, he says, has the right kind of city culture for the service to work. “You look at this city with the night life and the style and the great attitude, and I think Uber will fit well. We’ll see though.”

He admits that it is not necessarily going to be a “transportation solution” for everyone but says it grows on users – and they come to accept the pricing (in Berlin, a €5 basic fare with €2.20 per kilometre moving and €0.75 per minute stationary, with a €9 minimum) just as “coffee was a dollar fifty and then became six dollars and that’s a normal thing now.”

Regulatory Resistance

In North America, the company has attempted to broaden its service from premium into the more traditional taxi space, and has met in some instance with regulatory and other problems, particularly in the form of resistance from existing regulated taxi industries. While the company has no current plans to do the same in Berlin, Ryan wouldn’t rule it out in future: “In other cities, it is very helpful to have multiple options within one application so you don’t have to think about transportation. Uber is just the go-to app, and whatever the experience you want to have right then, whether you’re on a date and you want the S-Class, or whether you’re bouncing between meetings and just need a taxi, we want to be the answer for that decision process, and we may very well do that in Berlin.”

Interestingly, the importance of the experience works both ways – riders rate drivers, which obviously helps maintain the quality of the service, but the drivers also rate the riders. So would it ever get to the point where drivers refuse to pick up people who are constantly getting bad ratings?

“All the time,” Ryan said. “Would it get to that point? It’s at that point, in pretty much every city. There are riders that we’ve kicked off the system. The same way that we have kicked off drivers who don’t ultimately provide the quality level that we want. There are riders who have been disrespectful to drivers or abused the system in some fashion. And that’s ok – we don’t need their business, we can keep growing.”

You had better keep your Berliner Schnauze in check.

Check out our exclusive interview with Simon Breakwell, previously co-founder of Expedia and now head of EMEA at Uber.