Some thoughts on App Based Car Services (ABCS)

I started using Uber in April. According to my Uber page on the Web, I’ve had fifteen rides so far. But, given all the bad news that’s going down, my patronage of the company is at least suspended. As an overdue hedge, I just signed up with Lyft. I’m also looking at BlaBlaCar here in the U.K. (where I am at the moment), plus other alternatives, including plain old taxis and car services again.

But here are a few learnings I’ve gained in the meantime.*

First Uber isn’t about “ride sharing.” That’s just marketing gloss at this point. Instead Uber is what’s coming to be called an “app-based car service.” Let’s call it ABCS. I mean hey, if that’s what the New York Attorney General calls it, that’s what it is. At least for now.

ABCS is a new category, growing within and alongside two existing categories: taxis and livery. These are both old, established and highly regulated (in New York City for example, by the Taxi and Livery Commission).

My first few Uber drivers were dudes picking up some extra bucks, or so it seemed. The rest, including all the recent ones, have been livery drivers taking advantage of one more way to get a fare. Some had as many as three dedicated cell phones on their front seat: one for Uber, one for Lyft, and one for whatever car (livery) service they otherwise work for. Here are their names, in reverse chronological order: Jeffrey (whose real name was Afghanistani), Heriberto, Malik, Abdisalam, Fernando, Jourabek, Maleche, Namgyal, Mohammad, Rafael, Maged, Shahin, Imtiaz, Shaafi and Conrad. That last one was my first, in Santa Barbara.

Rather than being a new way to “share rides,” ABCS is a great hack on dispatch — a function of taxis and car services that has long been stuck in the walkie-talkie age — and payment ease.

But ABCS also hacks the whole car category as well. Why spend $300/month on a lease, or $30k for a car, plus the cost of gas, tolls, insurance and upkeep, when you’ll spend less just calling up rides from an app — and when every ride is friction-free and fully accountable? (Even to the extent that every charge is easy to post in an expense account.)

Cars are already becoming generic. (If you rent cars often, you know what I mean. A Toyota is a Nissan is a Chevy is a Hyundai.) And now we have a generation coming up that gives a much smaller damn about driving than did previous ones — at least in the U.S. All that aspirational stuff about independence and style doesn’t matter as much as it used to. How long before GM, Ford and Toyota start making special models just for Uber and Lyft drivers? (In a way Ford did that for livery with Lincoln Town Cars. Not coincidentally, several of my Uber drivers in New York and New Jersey have been in black Town Cars. Another fave: Toyota Avalons and Camrys.

Anyway, I think we are in the midst of many disruptions that caused by app-based ways to shrink the distance between supply and demand, in many categories. Taxi/Livery is just one of them. Hospitality is another. So is retail. Changes within ABCS are happening rapidly and in real time. Example: SheRides. Here’s one story about it.

Whatever else ABCS does, driving still won’t be a way for anybody to get rich, or even join the middle class. (At least not here in New York. YMMV.) At best driving will be a stepping stone to jobs that pay better and involve more marketable skills. So one question might be, What are the next stones? And, Does the emergence of ABCS give workers on the supply side — other than those running the companies — a lift?

Bonus link: DriverCollect, a new project in the UK. Check it out.

*[Later (12 April 2015)…] I went back to using Uber a few days after writing this, and I’ve taken another fifteen rides since then. I’ve given all the drivers 5-star ratings, meaning everything went fine. I’ve also taken one Lyft ride. When I’ve compared the two, Uber had the closer, faster ride, and won my business. I haven’t tried BlaBlaCar or any of the competitors. I’ve also taken car services when Uber hasn’t been available, such as when going to Heathrow from Richmond early on a Sunday morning. There tend not to be Uber cars available at that time in that town. Also, none of my drivers since I published this post have been native to the U.S. or the U.K. When I’ve asked them if they like driving for Uber, most have said it’s better than driving for a car service or Lyft, mostly because Uber gets them more fares, more easily. And scale matters. At that, Uber rules. The drivers’ only complaint is the slice Uber takes: 20%. Lyft takes the same, they say (and many drive for both). Finally, as with car service drivers, most don’t like taking route advice from passengers with Google Maps running on their phones (or at least not from me). But some do.


  1. Jonathan Peterson’s avatar

    A non-trivial advantage of ABCS is allowing a person to subsidize the cost of owning a car that they must have to commute to their main employment. Along those lines, there’s no reason that a low-end uber app wouldn’t allow the “working poor” to rely on each other’s used beaters for a short lift to mass transit, or all the way home when they’ve missed the last train, etc.

  2. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Right. Good point.

    BTW, yesterday at LAX there were plenty of taxis and buses going various places, but no readily available Uber or Lyft cars. Uber offered one car that was 40 minutes away, while Lyft had no cars at all. So we took the FlyAway bus to Union Station downtown. It developed a flat tire on the Harbor Freeway but eventually limped in, cautiously, on what in L.A. they call surface roads. At the station we ordered our first Lyft car, which arrived immediately. The driver works for both Uber and Lyft, with two phones on the front seat of his car. He described his experience with the two companies as roughly identical. Both take 20% of the fare. One small difference is that Uber provides drivers with a phone (usually an iPhone 4), while Lyft provides an app for drivers’ own phones.

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