Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Will Accountants be Uberized? Part 1: Examining the Google-Uberization of the Taxi Profession

This is part 1 of a series of blogposts that I will write (aiming for 2 parts, but let's see) on how CPAs need to take lessons from the Uberization of taxi cab drivers and see whether CPAs can themselves be uberized.

A recent article in the Toronto Star highlighted the latest turn of events in the battle between taxi industry and those that want to bring Uber to Toronto

What is Uber? 
Uber enables the "sharing economy" by bringing together people who need a ride with those who have spare time and a spare ride via a mobile application. In other words, Uber does for car owners what Airbnb did for homeowners.

Who's resisting? 
Taxi cab owners have fiercely resisted the arrival of Uber into their cities as it can dramatically impact their ability to make a livelihood. The article attacks the position of the cab drivers as follows; "For decades, Toronto idled as taxi permits were traded among owners for obscene prices, pushing up meter rates while service declined". Taking the argument to the logical conclusion: Uber breaks the monopoly by enabling non-traditional competitors to enter into the marker.

The argument from the cab drivers side of things is that they are a profession: they have to pass examination standards that enables them to be qualified by the public to fulfill their duties. Furthermore, as noted in this article on the Walrus, taxis have a public duty in terms of assisting the handicap whereas Uber appears to be shirking this responsibility:

"Then there are disabled passengers, who don’t fare well at all with the Uber model of transportation. Indeed, nothing demonstrates the fundamental gulf between market-driven and civic-minded car services as much as the issue of accessibility. From a purely commercial point of view, passengers in wheelchairs represent a niche market. And unless compelled to by regulation or personal circumstance, most drivers are not going to invest the $60,000 needed to buy an accessible van.
For the most part, Uber pretends that the issue doesn’t even exist: In California, where a 2013 law requires ride-sharing services to report data about disabled passengers, the company has stonewalled the government. In July, a state judge recommended that Uber operations be suspended statewide and the company fined $7.3 million (US) for violating reporting requirements."

These protests are not limited to Toronto but are worldwide. Take for example the following video posted by Russell Brand actor-turned-activist who brings the issue of cab drivers in UK to light:

Other issues to note:
  • Is Uber cheaper? Not always. As noted in this Forbes article and this article on Business Insider, Uber is not always cheaper. Business Insider notes how that Uber you pay for both the distance and the length of ride. Although there are certain times that it's cheaper to use a cab than Uber, the reality is that it's significantly different in price between the two options and you need an app . 
  • Taxis have to charge standard pricing, Uber does not. The company engages in what it calls "surge pricing", which means "[a]t times of high demand, the number of drivers we can connect you with becomes limited. As a result, prices increase to encourage more drivers to become available." This is in contrast to taxis which are regulated in terms of how much they can charge.
  • Tax implications of Uber: Beyond the licensing fees a cab driver would pay to the municipal and other governments, Uber uses transfer pricing techniques - like any multi-national corporation - to minimize the taxes it pays. As noted in this Fortune article, Uber takes a 20% cut - meaning governments stand to lose the income taxes associated with this revenue that could have been taxed as income as from the local cab driver or the company that owns the plate. 
  • "Creative destruction" meets nest eggs, loans and food-beverage cart vendors. The disruption of Uber doesn't just impact taxi industry but also the retirement plans of drivers, financial institutions as well as tertiary industries that are ancillary to cabbies. In Toronto, plates were pricey costing as much as $360,000 (but are now selling for 120K). The logic of paying such an exorbitant amount was that it would provide a nest-egg for the purchaser and his or her family. But they weren't only ones betting on these assets. As noted in the Wall Street Journal, BankUnited Inc. lent $214 million against 577 cab licenses (also known as medallions). Finally, as noted by the cab driver in the video above, there are the food and beverage carts, restaurants, etc. that serve cab drivers who will also face a decline as cab drivers exit the business. 
Uber vs Taxis: What does the taxi-cab profession add to society?

Isn't it essentially trust? 

Prior to Uber, we had relied on municipal governments to license and vet cab drivers to ensure that they would get from us point A to point B in a safe, efficient (e.g. the fastest route possible) and cost-effective manner (e.g. fair pricing). 

Not to feed into the classical techno-phobic mantra of fear-uncertainty-doubt (FUD) but Uber drivers have violated that trust.

What Uber essentially proposes, is that municipal governments can be dis-intermediated in terms of oversight of the taxi profession. 

In terms of trust, what Uber purports is that the rating that drivers assign to passengers and passengers assign to drivers can serve as an effective substitute for the licensing and vetting function. Although this may work for the vast majority of time, it does not help those that have been victimized by Uber drivers. To use auditing-speak, the rules & regulations around cab drivers serve as a more effective control around cab drivers than Ubers rating system. 

The other issue is that Uber does not seem to be able to replace the public service function of the taxi profession: they openly "surge price" customers and are stone-walling the government around how they can serve the disabled community. 

Google's Driver-less Cars: Taking Uber to its logical conclusion 
Although the cab drivers can have a solid argument against Uber in terms of trust and public service, they may not fare so well at the next incarnation Uber: "Google's Uber". This is where we take Google's driverless cars to the concept of and apply it to Uber. I had mentioned the implication of Google's driverless car in a previous post - examining the impact on car insurance and the industry that has grown up around it. But I didn't explore how such a future will evolve. Google can effectively fill the role of cab services as follows:
  • Getting us there the fastest: With its Maps offering, we all have come to trust Google to get us to our destination the fastest which incorporates live traffic data. 
  • Safety:  Google's driverless cars have proven to be safer than human driven cars. Assuming it is not taken over by homicidal program like Skynet, the issue of assault basically is eliminated from the equation. 
  • Cost effective: This perhaps the most important part of the value proposition: Google's advanced algorithms could bring a level of optimization that would take the sharing economy to unparalleled heights. Imagine if Google sold driverless cars that would be earning money while the people are working. In such a scenario, the cost of the service would not only reduced by the amount of by the amount of wages and benefits paid out (regardless if it's a cab driver or an Uber driver), but it would also effectively share the cost of capital with the owner of the car. Alternatively, Google could offer, or supplement such an offering, with its own fleet of cars. Ultimately, would such an offering cannibalize car ownership altogether? If it's cheaper and faster to Google-Uber it, why bother owning a car and being held ransom by some insurance-feudal-corporate overlord? 
  • Public service: Given Google's experience with working with municipal government via its high speed internet offering, it is uniquely positioned to see such a service fulfill its public service role. As noted in the previous bullet, Google's own fleet of cars could be special purposed to serve the disabled.  In fact, Google openly advertises its driverless cars as something that will give the blind their independence (see video below as proof)

In the next installment (or set of installments), I will explore the prospects of how the CPA profession can be Uberized and what we can learn from the Uberization, and ultimately Google-Uberization, of the taxi cab profession. 

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