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Government Regulations Threaten to Put Uber Smartphone Car Service Out of Business

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by Publius
Posted December 04, 2012, 2:49 PM

According to The New York Times:

Summoning a taxi or car service with your smartphone feels like the future. City governments around the world can agree on that. But many of them are proposing new rules that would run Uber, one of the most prominent ride-requesting apps, off the road. 

At a recent conference here, transportation regulators and car service operators from cities in the United States and Europe met to talk about how smartphone apps were changing the hire-a-car business. Some of these apps are integrated with dispatching systems run by the car companies, while others allow drivers to directly connect with passengers, phone to phone.

While the regulators discussed ways to clarify the legality of these apps, they also proposed guidelines that would effectively force Uber, a San Francisco start-up, to cease operations in the United States. Uber also faces new lawsuits filed by San Francisco cabdrivers and Chicago car service companies, and a $20,000 fine from the California Public Utilities Commission.

The battle between Uber and city governments underscores the tension between lawmakers and technology companies at a time when Web sites and mobile apps can outmaneuver old rules. Services like Uber, Airbnb and Craigslist can cut out the middleman and lead to more efficient markets. But regulators say they could also put consumers at risk.

Uber has rattled regulators in many cities with its unusual approach to expansion. It says that it first consults a transportation lawyer in a city on whether it is legal to operate there. When it comes to town, its employees contact local car service companies to discuss working with them; in cities where Uber works with cabs, employees put up fliers or approach drivers at airports and gas stations. Participating drivers get free iPhones that run Uber’s navigation software, which helps them find people nearby who are requesting rides with their smartphones.

The start-up, which has raised $50 million since 2010, generally does not consult transportation regulators before it starts rolling in each city. Because it is not an actual provider of rides, it says that it is not subject to such regulation. To date, this approach has generally worked for it in 18 cities, including San Francisco, Washington, New York, Chicago, Paris and Amsterdam.

Uber suffered its first serious setback in New York, where it was forced to cease its fledgling yellow cab operation in October because of what the city said were exclusive contracts with payment processors. But the company continues to work with luxury sedan companies and drivers there.

Matthew W. Daus, former chairman of New York’s taxi and limousine commission and current president of the International Association of Transportation Regulators, is one of Uber’s most vocal critics, saying the company isn’t above regulation. With the support of 15 city governments that formed a task force called the Smartphone Apps Committee, he wrote up the guidelines on laws that, if passed by the cities, would outlaw Uber’s operations.

In an interview, Mr. Daus, who practices law part-time with the firm Windels Marx Lane & Mittendorf, said that Uber was a “rogue” app, and that the company was behaving in an unauthorized, unusual and destructive way.  . . .

Regulators say new laws are required to protect consumers from being harmed by such apps. But Uber, aside from the hurricane troubles, is generally adored by customers who say they are willing to pay extra to summon a ride without much wait, especially in cities where cabs are scarce.

In Apple’s App Store, the Uber app has hundreds of five-star ratings. And when Washington tried to pass rules that would make Uber illegal, customers bombarded City Council members with thousands of e-mails in protest.

 

 

 

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