Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area to launch Uber competition in D.C. and San Francisco this fall

June 11, 2012 - 01:40 PM
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(Photo: flickr/bsabarnowl)

Elite cities call for elite transportation options, as we've observed in the last half year with the rise of luxury car service Uber. The ride is far more expensive than a taxicab (it's $15 minimum and sometimes far more) but loaded with class and convenience and the tech-friendliness that certain people want. Just load the Uber smartphone app and summon a car when you need one.

But plans to launch a competing service in the District's luxury transportation market, and the company's chief product officer Doug Anderson wants to avoid the regulatory debacle that Uber entered in early 2012. He flew into D.C. recently and met with Councilmember Mary Cheh's office last Monday and with D.C. Taxicab Commission Chairman Ron Linton last Friday afternoon. Last January, Linton declared Uber's service — one that skirted the definitions of "limo" and "taxicab" and avoided street hails while charging based on mileage — was "illegal" and impounded two Uber vehicles. Uber's status has remained in limbo for six months as Cheh voiced support for Uber and Linton's Commission is, as he told me, "not concentrating on them at the moment."

Anderson told me that he is concerned about "how Uber entered the market," with what appeared to be a minimum of conversations with D.C. officials, and doesn't want the new offering to be "regulated out of existence."

Like Uber, is already in the business of coordinating with many cities' existing limousine companies to arrange for drivers. But they currently spend much of their time serving the corporate market. The company acts as a third party connecting clients to existing fleets. Five years ago, its focus was specialty vehicles but about two years ago, began diving into the corporate market. That business went "famously," according to Anderson, and its funding was significant — $5 million in original funding from Canal Partners and then another $10 million from Austin Ventures early last year, TechCrunch reported. Now, however, Anderson sees potential for launching a bigger service that would let people order towncars to take them to, say, the airport or across town. The virtue of, he said, would be upfront payment and clear windows of time that the company can guarantee. No mileage charges come into play, and Anderson "really wants to focus on the customer experience." Pricing that varies wildly (as in Uber's holiday surge pricing) can be "predatory," Anderson said, and "from a regulatory perspective, that's a real problem."

Right now, Anderson hopes, tentatively, to launch this more public service of in San Francisco in late summer and in D.C. sometime this fall. And with how many cars? works with about 50 companies in the D.C. area now out of about 2,000 worldwide to serve its corporate needs, with about 1,000 vehicles, and plans to enroll some portion of those in the launch of its new public service later in 2012. Developing these relationships with companies and drivers was critical to's decision to launch this new service.

"The biggest thing we realized is number one, that we're ready," Anderson said. The infrastructure already exists thanks to their corporate transportation service. D.C. also suffers with a taxicab industry that receives its share of complaints and has a population with its healthy share of disposable income. "The District," Anderson explained, "is rather easy to jump into." What remains is the question of regulation and precisely how and at what cost will be entering this new market.

"We had a discussion of [Anderson]'s general approach," D.C. Taxicab Commission Chairman Linton told me. "We had a very open and very frank conversation."

Linton called Anderson's ideas "intriguing" but said that they'll be subject to further review before he can comment on how feasible the launch will be and whether it will fit within existing regulations. Anderson is expected to send the Taxicab Commission more details in the weeks to come. Linton stressed that he's open to new ways of innovating the taxicab industry and cited the broader modernization efforts underway to bring in GPS and credit card readers. Anderson told me his meeting with Councilmember Cheh's office went well and she supported his general thoughts on how shouldn't be surprised by pricing, although her office did not respond to a request for comment. "They want to make sure this class of service exists," Anderson said about the meeting with Cheh and her staff.

Keep your eyes on for now, D.C. The company certainly has eyes on you.

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