As Uber and Germany's taxi unions battle in the courts and in the press, Daimler-backed Blacklane expands abroad. But what is its strategy? Well, the answer is as simple as it is convincing - it follows the rules.
Germany's complicated relationship with car-sharing services took another swerve this past week, when a court banned Uber's "UberPop" service. The country's largest taxi organization, Taxi Deutschland, was able to convince judges in Frankfurt that UberPop - which connects customers with private, non-licensed drivers - violates local licensing and safety regulations. But while plaintiffs in Germany and elsewhere continue to accuse Uber of ignoring the law, one German mobility provider says the country's tough regulations have actually helped its business expand globally.
Indeed, Blacklane, a Berlin-based car-sharing and limousine service backed by automaker Daimler and operating in 150 cities around the world, is marketing itself as the car-sharing service that follows the rules.
"I would consider Germany to be one of the most regulated marketplaces in terms of transportation," founder Jens Wohltorf told DW. "If you consider that we are able to comply with German regulations, it's also likely that we would be able to comply with Brazilian, or Chinese or African regulations as well."
Germany sees the mobility debate differently
If car-sharing services like Wundercar and Blacklane have managed to avoid the kind of animus that Uber has attracted, it's probably because they followed the laws rather than challenged them - even if their management might have groused, privately, that some of Germany's mobility laws were out-of-date and monopolistic.
As a commentary in the "Süddeutsche Zeitung" noted, "The law is the law, and the German taxi law is pretty clear here. Uber isn't abiding by it. There's no doubt that it's a taxi company, even if its drivers are sole proprietors."
But Jens Wohltorf of Blacklane thinks the outrage over car sharing services - and new pricing systems like Uber's surge pricing algorithm - in Germany runs deeper.
"There's a right to mobility in Germany," Wohltorf said. "It shouldn't be an excuse for overregulation, of course. But it shouldn't mean that you make the market completely unregulated - because then you leave people behind."
Taxis in Germany are considered to be the last link in the transport chain, rather than a luxury service, Wohltorf explained. Unlike Uber's service, German taxi drivers can't refuse customers. Though less of an issue in large cities like Hamburg or Berlin, taxis serve as the last mile of public transportation in suburban areas for the elderly and for people who live far away from bus or train stations.
In order to make taxi services reliable and to attract people to the profession, prices were fixed and a series of regulations were enacted. For example, in some regions, empty taxis returning to base can't pick up passengers attempting to hail a taxi on the street. That said, some changes seem to be in the offing: Germany's monopoly commission recently recommended that several rules be abolished to allow car-sharing apps to connect taxis with customers more efficiently.
All following the same model, with slight variations
Like Uber, the majority of Blacklane's drivers are sole proprietors who are driving their own vehicles. But unlike Uber, which has steadfastly sought to market and price its service as an alternative to taxis, Blacklane has followed German regulations for livery services - mostly high-end, more expensive luxury cars used by business travelers to get to airports.
"You can't book a Blacklane car on demand," Wohltorf said. "There needs to be a one-hour lead time. This is a matter of regulation, since on-demand services in our space are not allowed. That's only allowed for the taxi industry."
As a result, taxi unions are less worried about Blacklane, which in Germany costs 25-50 percent more than taxis. Richard Leipold, a Berlin taxi dispatch owner who heads the anti-Uber campaign, said the issue with Uber is one of fairness.
"We have to pay payroll taxes and social taxes for our taxi drivers, who work as full-time employees," Leipold told DW. "There's no way we can compete with UberPop, which doesn't have to pay those taxes for its drivers because they are sole proprietors. It's a simple as that."
Blacklane focusing on business market
So while Uber and the taxi trade unions duke it out in courts and media, it seems Blacklane's strategy is to maintain good relations with regulators and drivers while growing its business globally.
"Our vision is to provide professional driver services to every driver around the world. Full stop," Wohltorf said.
Outside of Europe, Blacklane has moved beyond luxury vehicles, offering economy cars in Asia and Latin America.
For Wohltorf, it's about ridding the world of inefficiency.
"Every car on average is used 45 minutes a day," Wohltorf. "It's the biggest waste of resources in history. It needs to stop."