Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Problem with KakaoTaxi

Here is my experience using KakaoTaxi. This is entirely true, but not meant to represent an overall picture of the service. It is my personal impression of it, and anyone is free to disagree. I encourage everyone to give it a try for themselves. 

Earlier this year, I wrote an opinion piece on this blog about what was then a hot topic: UberX being banned from operating in Korea. In that piece, I stated that I didn't really care about Uber itself being blocked, and suggested that a service like KakaoTaxi would suit me just fine, assuming the app was well designed and suitable for foreigners to use. 

Well, I finally got around to trying out KakaoTaxi for myself today. The experience was not great.  Basically, even though KakaoTaxi itself is a good app, the service suffered from the same kind of complaint I gave in that earlier blog post: drivers. 

Read on to see what I mean. 

Installing the App

At first, I was unable to install the app, getting the "Not available in your country" message. Strange, as this is a Korean KT phone registered under a Korean ID number. I think the phone's language being English had something to do with it. This was easily solved by visiting Google Play on my desktop, and installing the app remotely from the website. 

The app itself is still all in Korean, but its simplicity was amazing. I had no problems. A large button asked me to log-in with my Kakao account, which was then done automatically, and an SMS verification sent to my phone to verify the phone number. KakaoTaxi automatically received the verification code and proceeded to log-in. 

From there, two maps were shown: one for my current location, one for my destination.  I won't go into this too much, as there are other great illustrated guides out there you can check with. 

Hailing a Cab

Image: DaumKakao Corp
No problem here. I inputted my destination, and clicked Submit. Immediately a larger map popped up showing the car that had been dispatched to me, including his real-time updating location, an ETA, and the driver's name and photo. It took perhaps 40 seconds for him to arrive. Excellent. 

The Cab Ride

Here is were the KakaoTaxi service breaks down. The problem is: it still relies on those same questionable older male taxi drivers. I'm sure you know the type I mean.  

The driver clearly had his "KakaoTaxi: Driver" app out, which I could see had brought up a navigation map clearly detailing the best route to the location that I had sent (perhaps a fruit of their purchase of Kimgisa?). 

But the driver chose to ignore this, and proceeded to take an entirely different route. 

This led to some protesting, done over the sound the daytime television variety show playing from his in-dash navigation unit. But the driver assured us that yes, we could go the way we've always gone, a route that all mapping software and bus routes take, but don't worry, that's silly, he knows this area well, he knows the best route. We allowed him the benefit of the doubt, but it became clear that our route was diverging from where we wanted to go. The driver paid no attention to the navigational instructions clearly being displayed on his phone by his KakaoTaxi Driver app. 

We spoke up. An awkward argument ensued about what place we meant to go to, the driver saying he had been confused about which branch of our destination we had intended. True, the restaurant does have multiple branches in the area; this is why I made sure to specify the correct one on the map I sent. It is also, importantly, precisely why we chose to try KakaoTaxi this time. I wanted no confusion. No complaints of "oh well you didn't speak up clearly" or "oh well nobody ever goes to that one so I thought you wanted this other one." So there was no reason for this mistake. I specified exactly the location in KakaoTaxi and could see it flashing right on his phone as we drove. He never once looked at it. The only explanation I can think of is that he got the alert from KakaoTaxi Driver, hastily read the destination name, and then promptly ignored both the branch name (specified in the restaurant's title!) and the destination flashing on his map. 

Look, I'm not saying a taxi driver needs to have the precision and efficiency of a brain surgeon. But if you're not even going to try, what's the point? You know, there are some taxi drivers down on their luck, looking to make some cash until something better comes along. And there are some drivers who like the work. I guess, I don't know, I'm not a driver. But there are some who clearly just failed at life completely and this is the only work they can get that's not collecting cardboard. I can remember when I first got to Korea, my coworkers telling me dumb stories about how lots of taxi drivers are criminals and assault perps and rapists because taxi driving is one of the only jobs you can get after getting out of prison. Maybe I'm a jaded asshole, but sometimes, I see a piece of truth in what they're saying. But hey that's got noting to do with this. Back to the action.

Finally, as we arrived near our actual destination, the driver became again agitated, not knowing where the entrance was. His KakaoTaxi Driver app still, meanwhile, showed precisely the entrance we intended on, but still, for whatever reason, he refused to acknowledge this screen. We tried telling him that our intended destination is both there on the screen, and just up ahead to the left, but he feigned total ignorance. By this point our Korean friend in the car started admonishing the guy, who was clearly, somehow, bothered by this ordeal. He loudly protested that he has no idea where we want to go, stopped his cab at the curb, and asked if this was close enough. 

For us, by this point, it was. We would walk the additional 100 meters. 

The fare by this point was 13,000 won and nearly 20 minutes, for a trip that routinely costs $5 and takes 5 minutes. We gave him $5. He grumbled a protest, but I think even he was forced to acknowledge the reality of the situation. We paid a fair price. Any wasted fuel was his issue, not ours.

As soon as the door had closed behind us, he sped-out into an illegal U-turn, and off into the afternoon sun behind us.

We later discussed whether we should have paid anything at all, but I think we made the right call. Better to be legally in a good light then risk having yourself seem aggressive or antagonistic. Just in case. Who knows. 


KakaoTaxi quickly sent me a KakaoTalk message, presenting me with a free set of special KakaoTaxi-promotional emoticons as a "thank you" for my first completed trip. I declined the download. 

The app then brought up a 5-star rating opportunity, asking how was my experience with this driver. I leave it to you to imagine what rating I gave. 


As for the app itself, I was highly satisfied. It worked exactly as intended. With its simple interface, I don't think it will be much longer before it appears in English too. Unless they want to start running a "foreigner-only" service. 

The problem, of course, was getting the driver to actually use the app properly. Like I complained in my earlier post, the most annoying part of taking a taxi here is the random nature of drivers. Some are quiet professionals. Some are harmlessly chatty. Some have no business being behind a wheel. Now sure, that's probably true around the world. And ideally, the rating system would help to whittle down the system to those who are more reliable. And hey, I may have just been unlucky and gotten a bad driver. Other drivers seem to share my belief in the potential efficiency of the service:

"It's really convenient for us because we get the directions directly onto our navigation screen, and we don't have to ask exactly where it is, how long it takes and what road is the best for traffic." [Korea Times]

Now where was that driver when I needed him? Overall, the experience reminded me why I usally don't take taxis. I'll stick to the bus or train. You know where those are going. And if the driver isn't going to pay any attention to my submitted destination anyway, then for me, there's really no advantage to using KakaoTaxi over just standing at the curb and hailing a cab the old-fashioned way. 

So even though I anticipate KakaoTaxi to continue to grow, I don't think it solves the fundamental problem. A cab is not a self-driving computer system (...yet!). Sure, the app can connect you with a cab, but once you step inside, it's not the app that's running the system anymore. You're in the hands of the driver, and you'd better hope those hands are competent. 


Have you had any experiences, good or bad, with KakaoTaxi? Tell me about it in the comments. 

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