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Grab faces off against Tesla taxis in Indonesia's cab war

Cab operator Blue Bird's plans include focusing on electric vehicles made by Tesla and BYD to cut fleet ownership costs and improve efficiency using data


IN 2015, the shares of Indonesia's largest cab company were soaring, while its revenue reached a record high. Then came Uber, followed by Grab and Gojek, South-east Asia's answer to the revolutionary ride-hailing app.

Competition from the technology titans wiped out US$1.7 billion, or almost 80 per cent, of PT Blue Bird's market value from a peak. Revenue plunged 23 per cent in three years and the latest quarterly earnings fell to a record low.

But rather than give up, the 54-year-old cab operator is now seeking to turn the tide. Leading the effort is Noni Purnomo, who succeeded her father in May as president. Four months into her new job at the Jakarta-based company, Ms Purnomo is banking on technology to transform the flagging business her late grandmother started in 1965. Her plans include focusing on electric vehicles (EVs) made by Tesla Inc and BYD Co to cut fleet ownership costs and improve efficiency using data.

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"We decided to take a huge leap," Ms Purnomo, 47, said in Jakarta last week. "With this leap, we hope we can address our shortcomings" and catch up with rivals.

While sustainability is her immediate priority, Ms Purnomo's goal eventually is to beat the ride-hailing giants that have upended what was once an industry renowned for its steady revenue and dominated by small owners and families like hers. She's up against Singapore-based Grab, the regional giant that bought Uber Technologies Inc's South-east Asian operations last year.

Ms Purnomo's toughest challenge yet may be convincing investors that her company is here to stay and thrive. Blue Bird's shares traded at 2,580 rupiah in Jakarta on Monday. They reached an all-time high of 12,500 rupiah in January 2015, months after Blue Bird raised a modest US$200 million from an initial public offering.

Ms Purnomo has already added about two dozen EVs to Blue Bird's almost 30,000-strong fleet of cabs that operate in the cities of Java, Sumatra, Bali, Lombok and Batam. Eventually, the plan is to have 2,000 of the zero-emission taxis from Tesla and Chinese maker BYD, she said.

EVs may give her company an edge as initial data have shown encouraging signs, she said. The vehicles cost 40 per cent less to operate than fossil fuel-powered cars, and generate 30 per cent more revenue, according to her. Besides, her rivals can't replicate this model easily, according to Ms Purnomo. Their asset-light model would require drivers to bear the financing costs of an expensive EV, a risky proposition for most individuals, she noted.

The lack of charging infrastructure in the country could pose a hurdle. Right now, Blue Bird has facilities at its main office in Jakarta, while there's one available at the city's airport. President Joko Widodo's government is trying to ramp up charging stations in malls and other public places to help boost sales of EVs.

Blue Bird will also invest in the Internet of Things (IoT) - an emerging technology that links machines and gadgets and likely to get a boost with the roll-out of 5G wireless networks. IoT will help Blue Bird collect data and improve operational efficiency and help implement dynamic pricing, a variable fare model popular with the likes of Uber, Lyft Inc. and Grab.

Ms Purnomo said the company now has the technical capability to fight back and the financial resources to challenge them, without elaborating on how she plans to raise capital.

On the other hand, Grab has money to burn. Valued at US$14 billion, it is planning to raise more than US$4.5 billion in its latest funding round.

"Gojek and Grab's low fares have caused a major churn for these taxi companies," said Kenny Liew, an analyst at Fitch Solutions. "The taxi companies need to look at new business models, even partnerships with ride-hailing players, to stay relevant."

Blue Bird already has an alliance with Gojek, operated by PT Aplikasi Karya Anak Bangsa, that allows its fleet to be available on the Gojek app.

While it opens up the customer base, it also has the disadvantage of lower margins, Mr Liew said.

Gojek offers both motorcycle and cab rides. A representative for Gojek said the company has also started a pilot project for electric motorcycles and cars in Indonesia. If the vehicles can save costs, that will help drivers, she added. BLOOMBERG