Uber launched in San Francisco in 2010. Pic: AP.

Ride-hailing app Uber officially launched in Thailand Wednesday with free rides across Bangkok, joining an already crowded market.

The app – which allows users to book a ride on a smartphone – has been operating in Asia for just over a year, but has expanded aggressively into 20 cities across 11 countries in the region.

Since first launching in San Francisco in 2010, Uber has offered users an alternative to cities’ regular taxi networks – often at a premium.

Uber says the fare for using the service in Bangkok will be 1.5 to 2 times higher than for normal metered taxis, with a ฿45 (US $1.50) flagfall. The fare is calculated by a combination of distance and time, at ฿9.20 (US $0.29) per kilometre and ฿2.50 per minute, respectively.

Uber does offer the more affordable service “Uber X,” with cheaper fares in simpler vehicles like the Toyota Camry. However, Bangkok users will only be offered the premium service “Uber Black” for the time being – something that could help distinguish it from rival apps.

Like much of the region, Thailand is already home to a number of similar apps, including GrabTaxi, which claims to be the largest in Southeast Asia. Unlike Uber, which has built its own fleets, Grab Taxi works within existing taxi systems, luring drivers with the promise of fatter profits of up to 300 per cent.

While Uber relies on a centralised booking system, much like the existing phone dispatch system, GrabTaxi connects users directly with drivers via their phone numbers.

Taxi-booking apps are popping up elsewhere in Asia too: Chinese tech giants Alibaba and Tencent have each developed a service, and Brazil’s Easy Taxi has expanded to three countries across Southeast Asia.

Grab Taxi’s founder and CEO, Anthony Tan, told The Next Web taxi-booking apps “are all fighting for the same thing: . . .making it as painless as possible for people to move from a street hail to an e-hail. Our biggest competitor is the average Joe.”

Convincing people to install taxi-booking apps and use them is one thing, but once inside their cabs there’s little app developers can do about the traffic.

Uber’s head of Asia expansion, Sam Gellmen, admitted the notorious gridlock of cities like Bangkok and Jakarta could prove a challenge.

“We can’t really solve the traffic, but we can make the ride more comfortable,” he said.

Gellmen says Bangkok, with its rapid growth, was a good city for its service, and that Uber hadn’t yet decided which other Thai cities it would expand to.