Hail a cab from the couch

The GrabTaxi app aims to revolutionise public transport

Like many Thai girls, Juthasree Kuvinichkul was taught by her parents not to ride in taxis alone because of safety issues. Even men sometimes prefer not to take taxis because of negative stories we often hear about the drivers — rudeness, reckless driving, robbery and road rage, to name a few.

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Or how about the all-too-common trauma of trying to get a taxi when it is pouring down? Or the near-impossible attempts in tourist areas, where drivers only want foreign passengers so they can demand higher fares?

Juthasree discovered that these problems weren't exclusive to Thailand while she was studying at Harvard Business School. Her Malaysian classmates came up with an idea for a smartphone application to make taxis safer and more reliable. The plan won second place in Harvard’s Business Plan Contest in 2011.

"After graduation, my classmates founded the app in Malaysia and it worked. A bunch of friends from the Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia then got together and we thought, since we have the same problem, why don’t we revolutionise the taxi industry with this?" said Juthasree, director of GrabTaxi Thailand.

GrabTaxi is a free application that runs on every smartphone platform and uses GPS to locate and match passengers and drivers according to requests. For safety and convenience, the passenger is provided with the driver’s name, plate number, picture and mobile phone number. The app also shows the driver on a map in real time as he or she approaches.

Once your taxi arrives, you can also choose to "share the ride" through social media or email, alerting others as to which particular cab you are in. This feature makes the app very popular among concerned parents who feel uncomfortable letting their children take taxis on their own.

Juthasree Kuvinichkul, director of GrabTaxi Thailand.

So far, a few thousand drivers have signed up for GrabTaxi. Juthasree said that, surprisingly, a number of taxi drivers today also use smartphones. While it's only a small fraction of the 120,000 taxis in Bangkok, it’s a meaningful step towards a better future.

The system, she said, is for the convenience and safety of both passengers and drivers.

"We looked at the whole system, including garage owners and co-ops, to find a complete solution. We are quite confident that our system improves it as a whole," explained Juthasree.

She said that through GrabTaxi, the enrolled drivers can increase their incomes from 30-300% because they are able to match themselves with conditions of requested rides. This helps solve many health issues for taxi drivers — bladder problems and missed meals, for example — because they can plan their time more effectively.

"The app allows passengers to book a taxi up to seven days in advance, so drivers better plan their routes and avoid driving a car without passengers. Also, they can park and wait for passengers to put in a request that is similar to what they are looking for. That way, they can reduce costs and save time," said Juthasree, adding that some drivers have told her that they were able to have breakfast with their children while waiting for a request, instead of rushing out in the morning.

Initially, GrabTaxi approached Natural Gas Vehicle (NGV) stations to explain its system and give materials to drivers, who must be registered and screened to make sure they have clean records and possess a driver’s license. The condition of their cars is also checked for safety reasons. The drivers are trained in basic manners, which are evaluated by passengers after the ride.

"This ensures that this is where all the good drivers are," Juthasree said.

Drivers, too, can alert the call centre if a passenger is rude or problematic. So far, there have not been major complaints from either side.

The app can be used in Thailand, including Bangkok, Singapore, as well as several cities in Malaysia, and Manila in the Philippines. Coverage of other major cities in Thailand is currently in the works.

The ultimate aim is to improve the public transportation system as a whole, Juthasee said. No matter how advanced trains and buses are, after all, they don't stop on every doorstep.

"Taxis are an important part of public transportation — if they work well, public transportation works better. That improves the image of the country," she said. "[My business partners and I] have full-time jobs. We do this for society; it’s a social organisation. We just want to solve the taxi problem."

Up close and personal with GrabTaxi

After interviewing Juthasree, I tried the app for myself. The registration process was quite simple. Within a minute, I had put in my first request.

It was 9.30am at the time. There was a slight misunderstanding, as I booked 30 minutes in advance and the confirmed driver did not see that he was supposed to come at 10am. Thankfully, I figured this might happen, and had called his mobile to make sure he knew it was an advanced booking.

The app is linked with Foursquare, making it very convenient to select a destination. I also liked the fact that a message confirming the booking is sent to my phone, allowing me to keep a record of which taxis I’ve taken, just in case.

The driver was pleasant and the car was in a very good condition. He said that he and other taxi drivers really like the app because they know where to pick up passengers, instead of driving around aimlessly.

He also shared an interesting story about a passenger, a groom-to-be, who forgot his tuxedo in the taxi. Since the passenger had the driver’s number and vice versa, it was easy to get in touch with one another. That passenger called him and asked him to deliver to tuxedo. Even if the passenger hadn’t called, the driver would have known how to reach him.

I have yet to try making a booking at more challenging times and places, such as MBK Center when it’s raining, but my first try was pleasant enough and I would certainly recommend downloading it. 

About the author

Writer: Napamon Roongwitoo
Position: Life Writer