Anyone who has tried to teach their parents how to use a new technology must have empathised with Uber New Zealand general manager Richard Menzies last week.
Appearing before Parliament’s Transport Committee, Menzies was trying to make the case that outdated taxi regulations need not apply to Uber. It soon became apparent that the politicians responsible for regulating Uber had no idea how Uber works.
Reports of the event read like a pantomime, though it is less comical when there are very real policy consequences on the line.
Uber cars might transport passengers like a taxi, and the app might facilitate services like a taxi…but Uber is not a taxi. Uber cars do not use taxi stands, they cannot be hailed from the street, and the technology collects more information to ensure safety and accountability than most taxi services. Uber offers a more convenient service, and is often more reliable. And cheaper.
Old school taxi regulations are simply inappropriate for a technology that is operationally different to taxi companies.
A similar regulatory predicament is happening with e-cigarettes. Some e-cigarettes might look like cigarettes, and contain nicotine like cigarettes…but they are not cigarettes. Crucially, e-cigarettes (and the array of other nicotine delivery devices emerging) do not involve combustion or the cocktail of other poisons that cigarettes contain.
If the product is safer than cigarette smoking, and the product is used by most people to give up or reduce smoking, then does it really make sense to regulate it like traditional cigarettes?
In its consultation paper, the Ministry of Health invited feedback on which tobacco regulations should apply to e-cigarettes. One could rightly question what graphic health warnings e-cigarettes would be decorated with, considering one of the benefits of e-cigarettes is that it avoids harmful smoking-related diseases.
For both e-cigarettes and Uber, the existing regulations aren’t fit for purpose. Scrambling to tweak the old framework to fit the new technology will not address the need to accommodate future improvements and changes.
As the Initiative argued in our submission on e-cigarettes, regulations designed to protect consumers can do more harm than good. That rule applies even in the optimistic scenario of regulators actually grasping how these technologies work.
In any case, it’s important to remember: even if it looks like Fawlty Towers and sounds like Fawlty Towers…it might just be another Transport Committee hearing.
The New Zealand Initiative recently hosted Julian Morris from US think tank the Reason Foundation. His presentation on these topics can be found here.