Mobile technology has been transforming the world for a long time but few parts of our lives are going to be impacted quite as much as transportation. It’s one thing to look at the numbers and make an educated guess how new technologies will transform our lives, it’s quite another to step out of the realm of the theoretical and actually get in the back of a car.
I would have tried Uber and Lyft sooner but we don’t live in a city where they operate. Both of these ridesharing services threaten the status quo of cab and limo companies with long-standing and cozy relationships with taxi commissions and other government regulators. In many cases, as government is prone to do, regulators came down hard on the side of the status quo. On a recent trip I finally got a chance to actually try Uber and I feel like the guy (or gal) who just discovered fire.
How It Works
The key to ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft is the GPS capability that is built into modern smartphones. The Uber app on your phone records your location and you manually enter your destination. Uber then checks around for drivers in your area and broadcasts your location and destination to the closest ones and the driver can decide if he or she wants the pickup. When one of the nearby Uber drivers picks up the request Uber sends you a picture of the driver, a description of the vehicle and you can see the location of the car coming to get you, updated in real time, appear on the map. That feature alone makes Uber worth trying; you don’t have to stand around on the curb looking like a tourist. You can wait inside until the car gets close and step outside just in time to meet the driver.
By far the best feature of Uber is no cash ever changes hands between you and the driver. Uber bills the credit card you have on file and the driver gets paid once a week. You just grab your stuff and go. At least that’s the way it works most of the time.
Not Without Some Rough Edges
I’d like to report that everything went swimmingly on my first personal experience with Uber but that would be a lie. Our troubles actually started a week out when I tried to install the Uber app on my phone. The app would install but it wouldn’t work right. I spent two days going back and forth with Uber’s tech support only to discover that the Uber app is not compatible with the version of Android on my smartphone. My phone is an older model and Uber is made for more modern devices. That was disappointing but, fortunately, my wife’s phone has a new version of Android and the app ran just fine on her phone.
As we got close to our destination I fired up the app and discovered it couldn’t find our location. That wasn’t a fault in the application; turns out I had wide-area GPS disabled on my wife’s phone. Duh. After fixing that the app started working but when I tried to lock in our destination it picked the wrong address. Not being familiar with the neighborhood, I didn’t know it was the wrong address so I watched the little car on the map get closer and suddenly turn off on the wrong street a couple blocks away. It took a few minutes and two phone calls to the driver to get it all sorted out. One minor niggle on the Uber app is once that original destination is entered, you can’t change it. I give our driver, Jean, major props for hanging in there on his own time while we sorted it out.
After a bit we finally saw the car coming down the street and from there the service worked flawlessly. Our driver was friendly and careful behind the wheel and his vehicle, a newer model Nissan Murano, was spotlessly clean. We arrived at our hotel less than 20 minutes later and once there we just grabbed our bags and headed inside. Uber emailed me a receipt a few minutes later, a figure less than half of what a cab ride would have cost us. On the driver’s side, Uber keeps a percentage and sends the rest of the money to the driver.
The next day on the trip back everything worked perfectly. The app pinpointed our location precisely and, imagine our surprise when the exact same car as the day before pulled up. Another minor niggle with Uber is you can’t pick your favorite drivers; we just got incredibly lucky and I’d like to see them add that option.
Uber was the first time that I could not only imagine never using a cab again but, if we lived in a city they operated, I could imagine not owning a car at all. It was an eye-opening experience for me so see the full power and potential of mobile technology applied so perfectly to a problem. Compared to Uber, cabs are shabby, expensive and primitive.
I also understand why Google backs them financially. Uber is more than a ridesharing app; it takes personal transportation, combines it with technology, then applies market-based economics. The fusion of mobile tech and a competitive market produces results that are nothing short of revolutionary. Part of the reason fares are so high is cab companies spend a lot of money to protect the status quo. But I have experienced the future and now the only question will be how difficult those entrenched special interests can make the transition.