Chinese Skip ‘Smelly’ Cabs in Favor of Free Rides With Uber

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Taxi Aps In China
Taxi-hailing apps, from lower left, Uber, Didi Dache and Kuaidi Dache on a smartphone in Guangzhou. Source: Imaginechina

Jessica Yang switched from taxis to chauffeured cars for the commute into her Beijing office as rides have become cheaper. These days, she often goes for free as apps such as Uber Technologies Inc. offer big incentives to win customers.

“I just go for whatever is cheaper,” said Yang, 41, who doesn’t drive and has taken free rides offered by Uber and local rival Didi Kuaidi. “There is no loyalty here. Almost all the cars are better than Beijing’s dirty and smelly taxis.”

Uber and the clones it spawned are widely considered the next big thing for the technology industry, with venture capital and hedge funds lining up to bet on their prospects. In China, the race to win over hundreds of millions of paying commuters has pushed companies to put market share before profitability, behavior common during the dot-com bubble that peaked in 2000.

“The new round of price wars is about to start, and it’ll be a war of attrition,” said Zhang Xu, a Beijing-based analyst at Analysys International, which advises Internet companies. “Unlike previous price wars, where they were mainly attracting new users, they now need to fight to grab each other’s users. They’ll need to have enough capital so that they can last.”

There has been no lack of willing backers in China’s ride-hailing competition.

The company operating the Didi and Kuaidi apps is seeking to raise at least $1.5 billion to fend off Uber in China, with funding coming from new and old investors, people familiar with the matter said this week.

Alibaba, Tencent

Backed by Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and Tencent Holdings Ltd., Didi Kuaidi announced earlier it would give away 1 billion yuan ($161 million) worth of rides to commuters to compete against Uber and Yidao Yongche, which also operates in the estimated $1 trillion-a-year market for transportation services in the world’s most populous country.

Didi Kuaidi currently dominates China’s car-hailing market with 78 percent of ride bookings, while Uber has about 11 percent, according to Analysys.

Uber plans to invest more than $1 billion in China this year alone, according to a letter to investors from Chief Executive Officer Travis Kalanick. Riders are completing almost 1 million trips a day in China, doubling in the past month.

‘Burning Cash’

Internet companies are “burning the cash” to build scale for taxi-hailing, and now private-car booking, because they’re among the most frequently used services in daily life and can drive usage of their other products, such as mobile payment, said Wendy Huang, the Hong Kong-based head of Asia Internet and media for Macquarie Bank Ltd.

“It will be challenging for the newcomer to grab a piece of share from the existing players,” Huang said. “But given Uber’s global presence and their success in other markets, the existing players cannot really take the competition from Uber lightly.”

Didi Kuaidi declined to comment on Uber’s plans to invest in China and on its own future plans for driver and consumer incentives. Huang Xue, Uber’s China spokeswoman, declined to comment on details of its expansion in the country.

For taxi driver Chen Hairu, who has been driving for seven years in Beijing, the rising popularity of private car-booking is prompting him to think about a career change.

“Maybe it’s time for me to become a private-car driver for hire, but I don’t know how to become one,” said Chen, 42, who took in about 200 yuan during a recent five-hour shift. “I heard there’s a foreign company that gives drivers a lot of money. I need to find them.”

— With assistance by Tian Ying, and Alexandra Ho

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