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Uber pulls driverless cars from San Francisco

Score one for the California DMV.

Uber pulled its self-driving cars off San Francisco’s streets Wednesday after the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles revoked their registrations, effectively ending the company’s controversial pilot program after just one week.

The move marked a dramatic end to Uber’s standoff with state regulators over the San Francisco-based company’s insistence that it did not need a permit to test its self-driving cars, even though the state said it did and other companies testing such cars have complied. It’s not clear when or under what conditions self-driving Ubers might return to California’s roads.
“We’re now looking at where we can redeploy these cars,” an Uber spokeswoman wrote in an emailed statement, “but remain 100 percent committed to California and will be redoubling our efforts to develop workable statewide rules.”

The DMV’s crackdown was a setback for Uber in what many viewed as the ride-hailing giant’s attempt to re-write California’s autonomous vehicle rules. The $68 billion company caught state officials by surprise when it launched its fleet of self-driving vehicles on San Francisco roads last week. After being forced to bow to state regulators, Uber said Wednesday that it has no plans to apply for a permit, but is “open to having the conversation.”

By revoking the registrations for all 16 of Uber’s self-driving cars in California, the DMV made good on a previous threat to shut down the company’s unauthorized pilot program. The company has been running a similar pilot program in Pittsburgh since fall without major incident.

“Uber is welcome to test its autonomous technology in California like everybody else, through the issuance of a testing permit that can take less than 72 hours to issue after a completed application is submitted,” a DMV spokesman wrote in an emailed statement. “The department stands ready to assist Uber in obtaining a permit as expeditiously as possible.”

DMV Director Jean Shiomoto also sent a letter to Uber, promising that the department fully supports the autonomous technologies.

“We are committed to assisting Uber in their efforts to innovate and advance this ground-breaking technology,” the director wrote. Though the state’s letter indicated that Uber had expressed interest in applying for a permit, the company was non-committal late Wednesday.

[…]

Uber’s decision to take its cars off the streets came as growing numbers of people expressed concerns over the vehicles’ safety.

Brian Wiedenmeir, executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, said he saw self-driving Ubers make multiple illegal and unsafe “right-hook” turns across bicycle lanes during a test ride before the program’s launch last week.

“Those vehicles are not yet ready for our streets,” Wiedenmeir wrote in a post on the coalition’s website.

See here for the background. The Guardian goes into more detail about the safety concerns.

Concerns are mounting about how the cars behave in dense urban environments, particularly in San Francisco, where there are an estimated 82,000 bike trips each day across more than 200 miles of cycling lanes.

The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition has released a warning about Uber’s carsbased on staff members’ first-hand experiences in the vehicles. When the car was in “self-driving” mode, the coalition’s executive director, who tested the car two days before the launch, observed it twice making an “unsafe right-hook-style turn through a bike lane”.

That means the car crossed the bike path at the last minute in a manner that posed a direct threat to cyclists. The maneuver also appears to violate state law, which mandates that a right-turning car merge into the bike lane before making the turn to avoid a crash with a cyclist who is continuing forward.

“It’s one of the biggest causes of collisions,” said coalition spokesman Chris Cassidy, noting that the group warned Uber of the problem. Company officials told the coalition that Uber was working on the issue but failed to mention that the self-driving program would begin two days later without permits, he said.

“The fact that they know there’s a dangerous flaw in the technology and persisted in a surprise launch,” he said, “shows a reckless disregard for the safety of people in our streets.”

Uber spokeswoman Chelsea Kohler told the Guardian in an email that “engineers are continuing to work on the problem”, and said that the company has instructed drivers to take control when approaching right turns on a street with a bike lane. She did not respond to questions about how the cars, Volvo XC90s, detect cyclists and what kind of training and testing the firm conducted before implementation.

Linda Bailey, executive director of the National Association of City Transportation Officials, which has raised formal objections to partially automated vehicles, said research raises serious alarms about the ability of drivers to properly intervene in semi-autonomous cars.

“It’s very clear that people are not good at paying attention,” she said, adding, “We’re waiting for enough people to die for something to happen. It’s not a great way to make policy.”

Local advocates noted that the Uber cars have been caught doing four out of the top five causes of collisions or injuries in the city – running red lights, going through stop signs, unsafe turns and failing to yield to pedestrians.

“These behaviors we’re seeing,” said Nicole Ferrara, executive director of advocacy group Walk San Francisco, “are some of the most dangerous behaviors in San Francisco that lead to traffic deaths and severe injuries.”

The technology just isn’t quite there yet. Relying on human backup for these self-driving vehicles is a bad idea that won’t work outside of a controlled environment because people in a driverless car aren’t going to be paying attention to the operation of that car, just like passengers in regular cars today don’t. On top of that, Uber did its usual disregard the rules and barrel ahead on their own thing, and this time the government agency they attempted to bypass stood firm. I have no doubt that this technology is coming – the Pittsburgh experiment is still going on, with no major incidents – but that doesn’t mean it will or should happen on Uber’s schedule. The fact that regulators need to catch up is a feature here, not a bug. Wired and the NYT have more.

What’s going on with Metro’s ridership numbers?

I have no idea what to make of this.

Houston’s heralded bus system redesign – garnering kudos from local riders and transit supporters around the country – is running into the reality that nothing can boost transit when fewer people are riding to work.

When the Metropolitan Transit Authority revamped its bus system in August 2015, officials said it would boost ridership by 20 percent in two years. However, transit use in Houston has been declining.

In November, fewer people boarded Metro buses, hopped on trains and commuted to work via the park-and-ride system. When all types of transit except service for the elderly and handicapped are considered, Metro handled 13,625 fewer trips daily, a 4.6% decline last month, according to figures released last week. Commuter bus ridership has plunged by more than 10 percent each of the last two months.

Now likely unable to reach their predicted ridership growth, which would have been unprecedented in the history of Houston mass transit, Metro officials concede more refinement is needed to gain riders on buses and trains.

They blame the declining ridership on fewer oil and gas industry jobs in the area and the transition of many jobs away from downtown Houston. Though the job cuts have been evident in the region’s economic outlook for months, the switch to the new bus system last year might have hidden the negative effect of fewer daily commuters.

“What I think we are seeing is the unemployment rate has had a real effect on ridership and it is just now exhibiting in our numbers,” Arthur Smiley, Metro’s chief financial officer, said.

I say I don’t know what to make of this partly because I can’t tell what the numbers actually are. They’re presented in bits and pieces throughout the story, and it’s not always clear to me when the stated declines are in comparison to the previous month, or to last year at the same time. I realize that I’m more number-oriented than most people, but please give me a table or chart with all of the relevant data. Context is everything.

As for the reasons for the decline, the recent slowdown in the local economy, specifically with energy sector jobs, is one possible factor. Others, not mentioned in the story, may include continued low gas prices and possibly a side effect of Uber’s penetration into the market. No one felt confident putting forth a firm idea, and with much of the decline coming on park-and-ride routes and high-volume local routes that didn’t really change in the system redesign, I’d say more study is needed. It was just four months ago that we were celebrating a big increase in the first year of the new local bus system map, so I’d say it’s a little early to panic. Maybe ridership fluctuates for reasons that aren’t always clear. Let’s do some work to figure this out, and then see what if anything we can do about it.

Driverless Ubers arrive in San Francisco

Here they come, ready or not.

Uber has always had a special relationship with this city. The ride-hailing company was founded and headquartered here. In its early days, one of the towns where Uber grew fastest was its hometown.

On Wednesday, Uber again highlighted its special relationship with San Francisco. The company has started offering its self-driving car service to passengers here, making it the second place in the world where Uber offers autonomous vehicles for public use.

It also marks the debut of the XC90 self-driving car, a Volvo sport utility vehicle outfitted with lidar, a kind of radar based on laser beams; wireless technology; and seven different cameras. It was produced in collaboration with Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center, the company’s driverless tech division based in Pittsburgh. Uber began offering self-driving car service in Pittsburgh this year.

“The promise of self-driving is core to our mission of reliable transportation, everywhere for everyone,” Anthony Levandowski, Uber’s vice president of self-driving technology, said in a blog post.

[…]

Starting Wednesday, any passenger who requests a ride from UberX, one of the cheaper options of the service, may be picked up by an autonomous vehicle. Those chosen will receive a notification inside the Uber app, where they can accept, or cancel and request a regular driver. A company engineer sits behind the wheel in each self-driving vehicle and can take over when needed.

Three passengers will be able to fit into the XC90 vehicles. Riders will be able to play with a large touch screen that displays the route the car is taking, as well as a rendered version of the environment the car sees through its cameras and laser guidance systems. Uber also lets passengers take selfies from a camera facing the back seat, which they can email to themselves and share on social media.

It is unclear if Uber is allowed to test its driverless vehicle technology within San Francisco. As of Dec. 8, the company’s name was not listed on California’s Department of Motor Vehicles website as one that held a permit to test autonomous vehicles in the state. Other companies, including Google, Tesla and General Motors, all hold permits to test autonomous vehicles in California.

“All of our vehicles are compliant with applicable federal and state laws,” an Uber spokeswoman said in a statement.

The company said that under California’s D.M.V. definition, autonomous vehicles are those that drive “without the active physical control or monitoring of a natural person.” Uber said its self-driving cars, which require a human behind the wheel to monitor or control them, did not fall under that strict definition.

In a statement, the California D.M.V. said, “20 manufacturers have already obtained permits to test hundreds of cars on California roads. Uber shall do the same.”

Of course there’s a question about whether or not Uber is compliant with relevant law as it proceeds. It wouldn’t be Uber if there wasn’t at least a little bit of questionable legality. And it keeps on escalating.

“It is illegal for the company to operate its self-driving vehicles on public roads until it receives an autonomous vehicle testing permit,” wrote Brian Soublet, chief counsel for the California DMV in a strongly worded letter to Anthony Levandowski, who oversees Uber’s autonomous group. “If Uber does not confirm immediately that it will stop its launch and seek a testing permit, DMV will initiate legal action.”

An Uber spokesman didn’t have immediate comment Wednesday on the DMV letter.

“Based on how the car is operating and used, we feel strongly the car is not an autonomous vehicle,” said Lior Ron, senior director of engineering for Uber’s Advanced Technology Group, during a presentation with journalists Tuesday.

California requires companies testing autonomous cars—defined as having technology capable of “operating or driving the vehicle without active physical control or monitoring of a natural person”—to have a permit issued by the state and to have a test driver who is able to take over driving.

Mr. Soublet in a call with reporters Wednesday dismissed Uber’s argument that the car isn’t self-driving because a human is behind the wheel taking control. “They’ve equipped the vehicles with technology that allows them to operate autonomously and that’s the key,” Mr. Soublet said.

In his letter to Uber, Mr. Soublet said 20 companies—including Alphabet Inc.’s Google—are approved to test a total of 130 self-driving vehicles that are being driven by more than 480 permitted test drivers in California. “They are obeying the law and are responsibly testing and advancing their technology,” he wrote.

Uber may be balking at disclosure requirements from the DMV as part of its permitting process. The department said companies with an autonomous vehicle permit are required to hand over accident reports within 10 days of an incident and to disclose how many times humans had to take the wheel, both of which are available for public inspection.

Bryant Walker Smith, a University of South Carolina assistant professor of law and expert on autonomous car law, said Uber may have a plausible argument as the law allows some interpretation. Still, he said in an email, Uber’s actions are “in tension with the law if interpreted in context. This was a law intended to apply to aspirationally autonomous vehicles. It was in large part about building trust, and Uber is not building any trust in its systems or practices by doing this.”

Awesome. I can’t wait to see how this plays out.

Anyway. The rollout here will be bigger than the one in Pittsburgh, and the hilly terrain of San Francisco will no doubt give the driverless cars – pardon me, the hip term now appears to be Highly Automated Vehicles, or HAVs – a sterner test than the one before. Well, except for weather conditions, as Pittsburgh is now experiencing snow, which is something San Francisco cannot provide. We’ll see how it goes this time. Forbes and TechCrunch have more.

Council approves Uber deal

I’d forgotten about this.

Uber

Uber will remain operating in Houston at least through the Super Bowl, after City Council approved changes to the city’s paid ride rules ironed out between the popular ride-hailing service and Mayor Sylvester Turner.

Council members, after a sometimes contentious discussion on Wednesday, approved the revised city rules for taxis, so-called transportation network companies like Uber and limo providers. The changes – which keep Houston’s fingerprint check for drivers in place but eliminates other requirements to operate here such as a mandatory drug test and physical – came after Uber indicated it would leave rather than cooperate with many of the rules.

[…]

City officials said the changes do not compromise passenger safety, while giving Uber and taxi companies more latitude to quickly and easily enroll drivers. When Uber and other companies that connect riders and drivers via smartphone app hit the road in Houston in early 2014, city officials opted to keep many of the same requirements in place that had existed for taxi drivers. After more than two years of study, the city thinks it can roll back some of the unnecessary rules, said Tina Paez, director of the city’s regulatory affairs department.

“We are not going to be everyone’s (human resources) department anymore,” Paez said, referring to redundancies in the company’s background check and the city’s requirements.

See here for the background. This will keep Uber in town through February 5, after which they may or may not finally follow through on that threat to take their app and go home. Or they may wait and see if the Lege takes care of their longstanding complaints about Houston’s and other cities’ regulatory structure. Be that as it may, they’re here for now, so ride ’em if you got ’em.

The Complete Transportation Guide To Super Bowl LI

For which the tl;dr version is don’t drive in or near downtown if you can at all help it.

More than 1 million people are expected to converge on downtown Houston during the week leading up to Super Bowl LI on Feb. 5, officials emphasized Tuesday as a transportation guide for the festivities was unveiled for visitors and locals alike.

[…]

The transportation guide – part of a #KnowBeforeYouGo social media campaign – details options for efficient movement around downtown, Midtown, the Uptown-Galleria community and areas surrounding NRG Stadium, the game venue. The manual can be found at www.housuperbowl.com/transportation – which is an area of the Houston Super Bowl Host Committee website.

Among new features for 2017:

There will be prepaid downtown daily parking available beginning in January via the committee’s app for motorists to reserve spaces for light rail passes.

Super Bowl Live downtown will feature a bike valet for those who prefer to travel on two wheels.

Free shuttles will circulate in downtown and Midtown; an Uptown-Galleria area link to downtown from Feb. 1 to Feb. 5 is $2 each way.

A game-day shuttle between the Galleria area and NRG Stadium will be $2 each way.

Metro will have extended rail hours from Jan. 28 to Feb. 5 beginning around 4 a.m. and running until at least midnight daily.

Click here for the official guide. My advice, if you work downtown, is to take the week off. I’m already getting a cold sweat thinking about how many tourists I’m going to have to dodge in the tunnels at lunchtime. A staycation is sounding pretty damn good the more I consider it. If you must come downtown, Metro or a bike are your best bets to not be part of the problem. The Press and Write On Metro have more.

Uber wants back in Austin

It’s how they get back that’s the question.

Uber

The ride-hailing company Uber may return to the state’s capital despite leaving Austin in May after a bruising fight with the city over regulation of the industry, according to Trevor Theunissen, the company’s public affairs lead.

“We are willing to negotiate, and we are willing to participate [with the city council] in a discussion on how to move forward. We want to come back here,” Theunissen said at an Austin event Thursday night.

[…]

Theunissen said that since leaving, Uber associates have been on “listening tours” throughout the city to address the concerns of the community. However, he said he hopes the company can return to Austin in the near future.

“We want to be back in Austin and I think it’s a city Uber needs to be in,” said Theunissen. “I’m hopeful that there is a path forward, but there’s a lot of work to do. I’m hoping to get back to the city before the [legislative] session or after the session.”

But former Austin City Council member Laura Morrison said Uber needs to use fingerprint background checks in vetting their drivers if they want to operate in Austin. Speaking on behalf of Our City, Our Safety, Our Choice, Morrison also said that the alternate background check methods Uber uses “are prone to critical errors.”

“Certainly, Uber is welcome to re-enter the Austin market if they are willing to operate under these rules, which all our other ride-hailing services abide by,” said Morrison. “It’s the law here, a law that the council enacted and a public safety standard that the people of Austin support. Uber operates in Houston and New York City and both require fingerprint background checks for Uber’s drivers. It’s a fair question to ask: Why does Uber think that Austinites should be subject to a lower public safety standard?”

In a statement sent to The Texas Tribune before the event, a spokesman for Austin Mayor Steve Adler said both companies would be welcome back to Austin “with open arms.” He added that there’s nothing stopping either company from returning.

“The mayor has always said that there is nothing in the ordinance preventing Uber and Lyft from choosing to return to Austin where they would be welcomed with open arms,” said Jason Stanford, the communications director for Adler’s office. “In the meantime, he’s also always said that he would be happy to sit down with them to work this out but will not comment on whether these conversations exist to create a safe space in which they could occur.”

There are a couple of ways to look at this. It seems likely that a statewide ridesharing bill will be passed, which will undo the requirement for fingerprint checks that Uber found to be line-in-the-sand-worthy in Austin and to an as-yet-unexecuted extent in Houston. Viewed in that light, this may be simply the initial overtures of someone trying to get back into the good graces of an ex after a breakup. But such overtures necessarily come with a helping of regret over past actions, and I think Uber really does regret leaving Austin; I think one reason why it never did follow through on its threat to pull out of Houston was because of that regret. Austin is a perfect market for Uber, but when they do come back, whether via legislative fiat or mutual agreement with Austin’s City Council, they will face a lot more competition than they had before. It may well be that they will sweep in an reclaim a dominant position in the Austin rideshare scene, but for the past six months their customers have learned to live without them, and some of them will carry a grudge over it. One way or the other, however they get back (and they will), it won’t quite be the same.

City reaches deal with Uber

From the inbox:

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner today announced a comprehensive strategy to streamline the City’s vehicle-for-hire licensing process to ensure that Uber remains in Houston and that Houstonians and visitors have as many transportation options as possible during the upcoming Super Bowl. As part of the plan, Uber has committed to continuing operations in Houston with the use of fingerprint background checks through the Super Bowl.

“I am thrilled we can finally put this issue to rest and focus on the real task at hand—providing a great Super Bowl experience that shows off our City,” said Mayor Turner. “We’ve crafted a proposal that reduces the length and cost of a driver application but still protects public safety. This is a win for drivers and passengers alike. These changes will help make sure that visitors have a seamless experience during the Super Bowl and Houstonians have diverse transportation options to meet the growing needs of our city.”

As part of the agreement, the City will bring forward process-improvement changes to Chapter 46 of the City Code which regulates vehicles-for-hire such as taxis, limos, and TNCs (transportation network companies such as Uber). The streamlined changes will reduce the costs of licensing from nearly $200 to $70, cut the licensing process in half, and allow drivers to be licensed in under 20 minutes. The City’s policy on background checks will not change. The proposed changes are expected to come before City Council before the New Year.

Mayor Turner also announced the launch of Arro, the City’s official multimodal transportation app, which will help make the City’s fleet of over 9,000 taxi and limo drivers more readily accessible to the general public. Building on Top Taxi, Houston First’s initiative to improve the quality and customer service of Houston’s taxi industry, Arro will help transform the taxi experience in Houston.

“In a city as large and diverse as Houston, taxis and limos will always play a critical role in our transportation strategy,” said Turner. “Arro and Top Taxi will help modernize our taxi industry by making our fleet more efficient and equipping Houstonians with access to multiple forms of transportation at the push of a button.”

While initially offering taxi rides, Arro’s offerings will expand in the coming months to include limos, wheelchair accessible vehicles, and collaborations with other forms of vehicles-for-hire and METRO. Arro is available for download on Google Play and the Apple App Store.

“We are very excited to bring Arro’s consumer and driver friendly app to the people of Houston starting today. Arro’s presence is a significant step toward enhancing robust transportation options throughout Houston,” said Mike Epley, founder of Arro. “Our app has already enjoyed great success in several cities by offering a potential boost to drivers’ incomes and providing faster and easier transportation access for passengers. ”

“Houston First recognizes that reliable and safe transportation is essential to the city’s success as a destination,” says Dawn Ullrich, president and CEO of Houston First Corporation. “That’s why we launched the Top Taxi Program in 2015 to coach our taxicab drivers on delivering a better customer service experience. Now, Mayor Turner is taking it a step further with the implementation of Arro, which we believe will revolutionize the user experience with taxis in Houston. We’re excited to partner with the city on the ongoing Top Taxi program and the rollout of Arro.”

See here for the background on Arro. You may recall that Uber had threatened to leave Houston after the Austin rideshare referendum was voted down, but since those initial rumblings there hasn’t been much from either them or the city. While Council members were not lining up to support Uber in this, there was some concern expressed about the availability of vehicle-for-hire services during the Super Bowl; Arro’s development was in part a hedge against that. This agreement means that those worries can be laid to rest.

The larger fight remains unresolved, however.

The fingerprint check – as opposed to the company’s preferred Social Security number-based check – has been the major disagreement since Houston legitimized the ride providing companies in November 2014.

“Our stance hasn’t changed in any way on fingerprinting,” said Trevor Theunissen, public policy manager for Uber in Texas. “This is a compromise to improve the driver licensing process so we can get through the Super Bowl.”

The deal does not, however, slow efforts by Uber and state lawmakers to develop statewide transportation rules during the upcoming legislative session. Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, filed a bill Monday to create statewide transportation rules for companies like Uber, but keeps taxis regulated at the local level.

Here’s Sen. Schwertner’s statement about the city’s deal with Uber. You know, I’m old enough to remember a time when it was considered “conservative” to value local government over state or federal government, on the grounds that local government was closer to the people and thus more responsive to their needs and accountable to their votes. That just sounds so adorable now. I mean, what could we Houstonians know about our wants and needs compared to a Senator from Williamson County? So until the Legislature crushes it underneath their mighty boots, chalk up another accomplishment for Mayor Turner.

UPDATE: The Press has more.

It’s bill-filing season

And they’re off.

Today is the first day of early filing in the Texas Legislature. Lawmakers in both the House and Senate may begin filing the bills that will be discussed when the legislature convenes in January 10, 2017. So how does that work and what does it mean?

For the most part bills are numbered in the order they are filed. However House Bill 1 and Senate Bill 1 are reserved for the Appropriations Bill (the state’s budget) and the first several bills in each chamber are reserved for the Speaker’s priorities and the Lt. Governor’s priorities, respectively. Last session it was the first 40 bills in the House, so the first bill filed on early filing day was HB 41, and the first 20 bills in the Senate, so the first bill filed was SB 21.

There’s no real particular legislative advantage to filing on the first day. Once the session gets going and bills sent to committees they are typically referred in batches of a couple hundred. The House and Senate will send the few hundred bills filed today to committee in the first couple of days of referral and the dozen or so bills filed tomorrow will follow them the same day or the next. Since the chairs of committees have almost complete discretion about when to schedule bills for hearings, a bill filed today could easily be heard in committee after a bill filed tomorrow or three months from now – or not at all.

So why bother to traipse up to Austin to file a bill the first day?

The bills filed today aren’t an indication of what’s most likely to pass next session, but they are an indication of what will be the major topics of conversation. Today’s bills represent the top priorities for lawmakers – and, since every media outlet that covers the lege will run a “what got filed on the first day of early filing” article they are more so the top priorities of the lawmakers who really know how to capture the media’s attention.

That’s from Daniel Williams’ blog, and he has several other posts devoted to first-day filings. Daniel knows legislative procedures like Scott Hochberg knows school finance, so do yourself a favor and read his blog.

The Trib has a good rundown on what has been filed so far. There are actually a fair number that run the gamut from “not bad” to “really good”, though take heed of Daniel’s advice about how little Day One means. There’s also some demagoguery, and more than a few bills making a repeat attempt at passage, including such things as a statewide ban on texting while driving and a bill to authorize online voter registration. New hot topics include a bill to life the cap on special education enrollment, and a bill to authorize and regulate ride-sharing at the state level. There were more than one of those bills; the one that I’d keep an eye on is SB176 by Sen. Schwertner, who has been talking about this since the Austin rideshare referendum. His press release on the bill, which covers the basics of it, has some bombast over that referendum and a bit of BS about how local regulations of rideshare companies were restricting competition, but the bill itself seems reasonable enough. It’s not too hard to see the writing on the wall for this one, and all things considered this approach seems to be workable. Ask me again after it comes out of committee.

Anyway. There’s plenty more out there, and this is of course just day one. In the end, thousands of bills will be filed, and the vast majority of them will die a quiet death. There will be plenty to keep an eye on between now and sine die. The Chron, the Trib, Trail Blazers, Dallas Transportation, the Current, the Austin Chronicle, the Rivard Report, and Out in SA have more.

Council approves city cab-hailing app development

Here it comes.

Houston residents soon will be able to hail a city cab via smartphone app, after City Council signed off on a plan Wednesday to consolidate dispatching in a single program.

The Arro app, already operating in New York, Boston, San Francisco and Chicago, is expected to be fully operational in Houston by the end of the month, combining dispatch for Houston’s 146 taxi companies. The city is requiring all of its roughly 9,000 licensed cab and limo drivers to participate.

“It is innovative. It’s taking advantage of technology that exists to create a centralized dispatch service,” Turner told City Council. “If you go to the airports, you’ve got cabs that are sitting there pretty much six, eight hours a day, waiting on a customer. Under this system, they can be out there servicing Houstonians. They don’t lose their place in line, and when it’s time for them to do something, they get a ping.”

Cab and limo companies had urged the city to develop an alternative to Uber, which dominates Houston’s ride market. Uber and other ride share drivers would not be included in the Arro app.

No taxpayer money will be used to develop or advertise the app, though city staff will coordinate with Arro, and elected officials could devote time to promoting the program.

Riders who use the app would pay $1.50 on top of the cab fare, and drivers would pay 50 cents for each app-generated trip, plus 3 percent of the total fare for a credit processing fee.

See here for the background. I kind of have zero expectations for this, but it does provide a needed service for independent cabbies, it’s being developed on the provider’s dime, and it’s not like it could hurt. I’ll be very curious to see what its download and usage numbers look like in a year.

How’s that Uber driverless car pilot going?

A few bumps in the road, as it were.

Uber

Uber driver Nathan Stachelek was pulled off to the side of the road when he saw the self-driving car turn the wrong way.

It was the night of Sept. 26 and the car he had spotted, one of the autonomous Ford Fusions that Uber is testing in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was heading through the city’s Oakland neighborhood, just steps from the center of campus for the University of Pittsburgh. Stachelek watched the car turn off Bates Street and onto Atwood, a one-way road, going in the wrong direction. From a distance he couldn’t tell whether the car was driving itself, or its human operator had made a mistake. Stachelek took out his phone in time to shoot a brief video of Uber’s vehicle backing up and driving away, then uploaded it to Facebook.

“Driverless car went down a one way the wrong way,” he wrote. “Driver had to turn car around.”

[…]

Stachelek isn’t the only Pittsburgher to spy one of Uber’s self-driving cars in an awkward spot. Late on the night of Sept. 24, another Uber driver and his two passengers encountered a self-driving Uber and a second car pulled over at the intersection of Bigelow Boulevard and Herron Avenue, about five minutes driving from the Advanced Technologies Center (ATC), Uber’s research facility for driverless technologies. The second car had its hazard lights on and was being inspected by a man with a lanyard around his neck in the apparent aftermath of an accident.

“I couldn’t see any of the damage,” says Jason, the Uber driver, who requested Quartz withhold his last name because he feared being deactivated by the company. But “there’s no reason for a self-driving Uber car to be pulled over in the way that it was, with another car right behind it with its flashers on.” Amber McCann, a Pittsburgh resident and one of Jason’s passengers that night, told Quartz the intersection is known as a place “where there’s a ton of rear-ending accidents.” Her friend and the car’s other passenger, Jeanette McCulloch, provided Quartz with a photo she took while driving by.

Uber said it was aware that another car had tapped the fender of one of its self-driving Fords on the night of Sept. 24. The company said that was the only incident it had heard of involving one of its self-driving cars in Pittsburgh and that it was reported as the “lowest level”; it didn’t specify whether the car was in autonomous mode at the time. The company also didn’t have any record of a self-driving car turning the wrong way on a one-way street, either while in autonomous mode or because its human driver made a mistake.

While it would be easy to write these incidents off as minor mishaps, both suggest how much work Uber has left to do on its autonomous software, even as it’s begun putting real passengers in the cars. One reason Uber’s vehicles are currently traveling only a small area of Pittsburgh is because those are supposed to be the streets its engineers have carefully mapped and taught the cars about. If that’s really the case, no self-driving car should be turning the wrong way down a one-way street—nor should its safety driver, who is in theory the final check on the car’s autonomy.

Driverless vehicles also tend to operate in a cautious, hyper-logical manner and follow the rules of the road to a tee. Uber, again via its mapping efforts, has tried to prepare its cars to avoid certain tricky situations they might run into. On one street near the ATC in Pittsburgh, Uber engineers have instructed the self-driving cars to hang close to the curb because trucks making turns are more likely to swerve into the oncoming lane. By that same logic, the cars should also know certain intersections are hotspots for rear-ending accidents and be on the alert to avoid them, much as a savvy human driver would be. Uber’s approach differs from that of other companies such as Nvidia, which have focused on teaching computer systems to drive in a more adaptive, human-like way—by being introduced to situations a few times, and then applying what they learn to other encounters on the road.

See here for the background. There’s video at the link if you want to check it out. The Quartz story has been picked up by other outlets – Engadget, OppTrends, Jalopnik – and while they include the response from Uber about the incidents in question, the headlines are all negative from Uber’s perspective. I’m sure they’d like for that to turn around by the time this pilot ends.

Other rideshare companies sued over lack of access for disabled people

Noted for the record.

A state disability rights group has sued the ride-hailing apps Get Me and Fare in federal court, arguing that because the apps only partially offer text-to-speech software, they are unusable for blind people and therefore in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

For example, Austin resident and accessibility consultant Jeanine Lineback, who is blind, was able to set up an account but was not able to request a ride, the lawsuit says.

The Fare app was officially made accessible to blind individuals in its iPhone update Sunday, and the Android app will have the same update in two weeks, Fare’s CEO Michael Leto said. As a result, Leto expects the lawsuit to be dropped against Fare.

Officials with Get Me said they disagree they are in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act because they do not provide public transportation.

The National Federation of the Blind chapter in Texas is suing on behalf of Lineback and four other Austinites, arguing that they are entitled to damages as well as an injunction against the apps, according to the lawsuit filed Tuesday. The injunction would require that the apps’ companies make these apps accessible to people who are blind.

When the National Federation of the Blind sued Uber in 2014 over some drivers refusing to transport blind individuals with guide dogs, Uber also argued that the Americans with Disabilities Act does not apply to them. However, the federation argued that private entities primarily engaged in providing transportation services are covered by the act, and Uber settled the lawsuit this summer.

[…]

“Get Me and other similar taxi services are a critical transportation option for many blind individuals in Austin, Texas,” the suit says. “Due to distances between destinations and the limitations of public transportation and paratransit, many blind persons must use taxi services to travel from one place to another.”

The suit also argues that if these kinds of apps put traditional taxis out of business, people who are blind will have even fewer options to get around. The suit says “other competing taxi services” operating in Austin have incorporated this technology into their apps, but does not specify which ones.

Color me unimpressed with GetMe’s defense. All of these rideshare companies need to have some level of accommodation for disabled riders. Perhaps the formula for it should be different than it is for a traditional cab company or public transit service, but it needs to be greater than zero, and they need to be accountable for it. That has to be a corollary of the way the vehicles for hire industry is changing. I hope GetMe can follow Fare’s lead and find a way to settle this rather than fight it out in court.

The city cab app

Meet Arro.

Houston’s fractured taxi market is headed toward a rare bit of unity, with a push by the city toward how people hail cabs in the 21st century.

As the taxi and limo industry adjusts to new ways of doing business, under intense competition from firms like Uber, city officials plan to consolidate dispatching via a private smartphone app in an attempt to buoy travel options for visitors and residents.

Citing a need to better use the nearly 4,000 taxi and limo permits across roughly 9,000 drivers, city officials announced Monday that Arro, a company already combining dispatch in New York, Boston, San Francisco and Chicago, will develop a universal taxi app for Houston’s 146 taxi companies.

“We’re excited to bring the taxi industry, fully, into the digital age,” said Tina Paez, director of Houston’s Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department.

Cab and limo companies encouraged the city to develop something to even the playing field with Uber, which has dominated the ride market since arriving legally in Houston in November 2014.

“I think you will have people come to rely on faster cab service than they do now,” said Duane Kamins, owner of Lone Star Cab Company.

The app would mean all cabs could be hailed based on who’s closest, breaking the taxi reliance on downtown cab stands and airport trips that leads to bunching of vehicles and a lack of available rides in other neighborhoods. The app also provides an emergency scenario, should Uber – which opposes some of Houston’s regulations – bail right before thousands descend for the Super Bowl.

City Council is expected to discuss the app at its meeting next week.

Starting with consolidating taxi companies into a single online dispatch system, the app will eventually expand to include other features such as transit schedules, real-time traffic information and bike sharing information.

Council member Michael Kubosh, however, questioned at a Monday committee meeting why the city was entering into the app business – or even encouraging a vendor to jump in.

“If you want government intervention and you all are holding hands singing Kumbaya, I will vote for your government intervention,” Kubosh said.

No taxpayer money will be used to develop or advertise the app, though city staff will guide the process with Arro, and elected officials could devote time to promoting it.

I don’t see any problem with the city’s involvement, especially given the other features mentioned. Cabs remain a regulated utility, so there’s a pretty good argument to be made that the city should get make this kind of investment. The concerns CM Greg Travis raised about Arro’s app receiving mediocre user ratings are more worrisome, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It’s a good idea, and it brings independent cabbies into the fold as well. Let’s see what the beta version looks like and go from there.

Who’s afraid of Uber’s driverless car test?

Transportation safety officials, at least some of them.

Uber

Uber’s decision to bring self-driving taxis to the streets of Pittsburgh this week is raising alarms among a swath of safety experts who say that the technology is not nearly ready for prime time.

The unprecedented experiment will launch even though Pennsylvania has yet to pass basic laws that permit the testing of self-driving cars or rules that would govern what would happen in a crash. Uber is also not required to pass along any data from its vehicles to regulators.

Meanwhile, researchers note, autonomous cars have been thrown off by bridges, a particular problem in Pittsburgh, which has more bridges than any other major U.S. city.

“They are essentially making the commuters the guinea pigs,” said Joan Claybrook, a consumer-protection advocate and former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “Of course there are going to be crashes. You can do the exact same tests without having average citizens in your car.”

But advocates of autonomous vehicles say that the technology might never have happened if companies had to wait for governments to pass rules first. With nearly 37,000 Americans dying in car crashes every year, largely because of driver errors, technologists have stressed the critical need to push forward on testing driverless cars on public roads.

[…]

[Roger Cohen, policy director for Pennsylvania’s Department of Transportation] and Bryant Walker Smith, an autonomous-vehicle expert at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School, are both comfortable with the tests because of the safety drivers. Still, they acknowledged that doesn’t mean it will be collision-free. “You’re not going to have perfection. There is going to be trial and error, and it’s not going to be problem free,” Cohen said.

Even so, the effort is raising concern from safety experts who say the technology has major limitations that can be very dangerous. Self-driving cars have trouble seeing in bad weather. Sudden downpours, snow and especially puddles make it difficult for autonomous vehicles to detect lines on pavement and thereby stay in one lane.

Walker Smith added that self-driving cars have sometimes confused bridges for other obstacles. “People need to understand both the potential and the limitations of these systems, and inviting them inside is part of that education,” he said.

The vehicles also have difficulty understanding human gestures — for example, a crosswalk guard in front of a local elementary school may not be understood, said Mary Cummings, director of Duke University’s Humans and Autonomy Lab, at a Senate hearing in March. She recommended that the vehicles not be allowed to operate near schools.

Then there’s a the human factor: Researchers have shown that people like to test and prank robots. Today, a GPS jammer, which some people keep in their trunks to block police from tracking them, will easily throw off a self-driving car’s ability to sense where it is, Cummings said.

For perspective, autonomous vehicles in Google’s fleet have driven just shy of 2 million miles as of Aug. 31. New York City taxicabs drive 1.4 million miles in just over a day, Cummings said. Uber declined to reveal how many miles its driverless cars have logged on public roads but said it will be testing Ford Fusions there, then Volvos. The program will be opt-in, with a select group of Uber customers getting an email asking if they want to participate. Both vehicles have been vetted on test tracks in Pittsburgh, the company said.

See here for some background. We’ll get some data on the safety question one way or the other, and while I’m wary of this it is important to remember that the point of comparison is not “no problems at all” but “the amount of problems one would expect with human drivers instead of robot drivers”. These things could experience some problems and still be an improvement in safety. Or not – like I said, we’ll find out. I’m more interested in the rider experience. How many of Uber’s customers that they have invited to give this a try will do so? What will they think, and how many of them will want to do it again? How will the people who aren’t invited to try this feel about it – jealous, relieved, something else? I can’t wait to hear the answers.

Google enters the rideshare market

This will be worth watching.

Google is moving onto Uber Technologies Inc.’s turf with a ride-sharing service to help San Francisco commuters join carpools, a person familiar with the matter said, jumping into a booming but fiercely competitive market.

Google, a unit of Alphabet Inc., began a pilot program around its California headquarters in May that enables several thousand area workers at specific firms to use the Waze app to connect with fellow commuters. It plans to open the program to all San Francisco-area Waze users this fall, the person said. Waze, which Google acquired in 2013, offers real-time driving directions based on information from other drivers.

Unlike Uber and its crosstown San Francisco rival Lyft Inc., which each largely operate as on-demand taxi businesses, Waze wants to connect riders with drivers who are already headed in the same direction. The company has said it aims to make fares low enough to discourage drivers from operating as taxi drivers. Waze’s current pilot program charges riders at most 54 cents a mile—less than most Uber and Lyft rides—and, for now, Google doesn’t take a fee.

Some years ago, I remember reading a story in the Chronicle about Houston drivers cruising through the park-and-ride lots in the mornings to pick up passengers for the commute into downtown. They were doing this because having an extra person or two meant they could take the HOV lane, thus greatly reducing the drive time they’d face if they went solo, as they would have done otherwise. This was done more or less ad hoc – I’m pretty sure this was all before Facebook and smartphones were things – but it seemed to work pretty well. I bring it up because that’s what this story reminds me of; having the smartphone app and the financial backing of a behemoth like Google just formalizes what had been an ad hoc process borne of frustration and impatience. I have no idea how well this will scale outside of a unique environment like the San Francisco area, but if anyone can make it into something viable, it’s Google. Slate and the Associated Press have more.

How do other states regulate ridesharing?

The Texas Legislature would like to know.

Uber

As Texas lawmakers consider filing legislation next year related to ride-hailing companies, they learned Tuesday that more than 30 states have passed laws calling for some level of regulation of companies like Uber and Lyft.

A report presented by Texas A&M University’s Transportation Institute analyzed state and municipal regulations since 2012. It found that 24 states passed legislation requiring ride-hailing apps, sometimes referred to as transportation network companies, must apply for a state permit before operating. The report also found that 30 states require background checks on the driver before or a specific amount of time after the driver begins working.

Lyft

“Transportation network companies have expanded rapidly to cities worldwide,” Ginger Goodin, a senior research engineer and director at the institute, told House Transportation Committee members at a hearing Tuesday. “However, they do not fit neatly within our current regulatory schemes.”

[…]

According to Goodin, there is no statewide policy in the country that requires fingerprint-based background checks. The group did not look into the number of municipalities that require those checks.

“There are many questions and unknowns,” Goodin said. The institute expects to continue to research the ride-hailing companies in the future.

You can see a copy of the report here. It seems very likely we are going to get some kind of statewide Uber/Lyft bill, it’s just a matter of whether the bill is a complete sop to them or if it tries to balance their interests with those of the cities and existing cab companies. The two Transportation chairs – Sen. Robert Nichols and Rep. Joe Pickett – are decent, and the guy who introduced the statewide bill last session (Rep. Chris Paddie) took the process seriously, so if those three are among the main movers, it’ll probably be all right. Just keep the chuckleheads like Sen. Don Huffines away from it, that’s all I ask.

Rideshare companies in Austin are complying with its fingerprint requirements

Well, what do you know?

Uber

All eight of the ride-hailing companies operating in Austin met a city requirement to have at least half of the rides they provided in July come from drivers who passed fingerprint-based background checks, according to a city memo released this week.

Achieving that Aug. 1 benchmark — the first major regulatory milestone since the Proposition 1 election in May — shows how quickly the smaller competitors built their networks of drivers, even with the fingerprinting checks and other requirements that prompted Uber and Lyft to leave Austin.

Taken as a group, the smaller companies provided more than 350,000 trips in July, almost 11,300 a day, during what would normally be a slack period because enrollment is light at area colleges during the summer.

[…]

Lyft

The city since January has received 3,771 fingerprint-based, criminal background reports on potential ride-hailing service drivers, according to the memo from Austin Transportation Department Director Robert Spillar to the Austin City Council.

All of those, including those whose checks occurred earlier in the year, were vetted against a list of disqualifying criminal offenses set out in a June 2016 ordinance, Austin Transportation Department spokeswoman Cheyenne Krause said. Of those applicants, 86 were rejected for failing their background checks.

The companies, most of which still have some drivers working for them who haven’t been fingerprinted, reported having 8,985 drivers. However, the memo says, individual drivers might be counted two times or more in that total because many of them work for more than one of the eight companies: Fare, Fasten, GetMe, InstaRyde, RideAustin, Tride, Wingz and Z-Trip.

The companies, by city ordinance, had to by Aug. 1 have at least 50 percent of their rides for the preceding month provided by a city rules-compliant driver, either as a percentage of hours driven or miles driven. According to the memo, using information supplied by the companies, Wingz and Z-Trip were at 100 percent. RideAustin was next, at 89 percent, followed in order by InstaRyde (86 percent), Tride (73 percent), Fare (69 percent), Fasten (58 percent) and GetMe (55 percent).

It gets harder from here – by next February, 99% of hours driven or miles driven must be provided by compliant drivers. I suspect the city may wind up being a bit lenient on that, if the companies lag and it makes sense for them to do so, but we’ll see. Point is, the companies that are in Austin post-Prop 1 have cleared the first hurdle. Was that so hard? You tell me.

Driverless taxis debut in Singapore

Not fast enough, Uber.

The world’s first self-driving taxis will be picking up passengers in Singapore starting Thursday.

Select members of the public will be able to hail a free ride through their smartphones in taxis operated by nuTonomy, an autonomous vehicle software startup. While multiple companies, including Google and Volvo, have been testing self-driving cars on public roads for several years, nuTonomy says it will be the first to offer rides to the public. It will beat ride-hailing service Uber, which plans to offer rides in autonomous cars in Pittsburgh, by a few weeks.

The service will start small — six cars now, growing to a dozen by the end of the year. The ultimate goal, say nuTonomy officials, is to have a fully self-driving taxi fleet in Singapore by 2018, which will help sharply cut the number of cars on Singapore’s congested roads. Eventually, the model could be adopted in cities around the world, nuTonomy says.

For now, the taxis only will run in a 2.5-square-mile business and residential district called “one-north,” and pick-ups and drop-offs will be limited to specified locations. And riders must have an invitation from nuTonomy to use the service. The company says dozens have signed up for the launch, and it plans to expand that list to thousands of people within a few months.

The cars — modified Renault Zoe and Mitsubishi i-MiEV electrics — have a driver in front who is prepared to take back the wheel and a researcher in back who watches the car’s computers. Each car is fitted with six sets of Lidar — a detection system that uses lasers to operate like radar — including one that constantly spins on the roof. There are also two cameras on the dashboard to scan for obstacles and detect changes in traffic lights.

The testing time-frame is open-ended, said nuTonomy CEO Karl Iagnemma. Eventually, riders may start paying for the service, and more pick-up and drop-off points will be added. NuTonomy also is working on testing similar taxi services in other Asian cities as well as in the U.S. and Europe, but he wouldn’t say when.

“I don’t expect there to be a time where we say, ‘We’ve learned enough,'” Iagnemma said.

Doug Parker, nuTonomy’s chief operating officer, said autonomous taxis could ultimately reduce the number of cars on Singapore’s roads from 900,000 to 300,000.

“When you are able to take that many cars off the road, it creates a lot of possibilities. You can create smaller roads, you can create much smaller car parks,” Parker said. “I think it will change how people interact with the city going forward.”

Uber is planning to roll out its driverless car pilot in Pittsburgh shortly, but they will not be first in line. The claim that driverless cars will ultimately solve traffic congestion is one of which I remain deeply skeptical, but we’ll see, perhaps sooner than I think. In the meantime, you can read more about NuTonomy, which has its origins at MIT, and this pilot test here, here, and here. Would you ride in one of these things?

Driverless Ubers

Ready or not, here they come.

Uber

The option to hail a ride in a self-driving car, which was science fiction just a few years ago, will soon be available to Uber users in Pittsburgh, the first time the technology has been offered to the general public.

Within weeks, the company announced Thursday, customers will be able to opt into a test program and summon an autonomous Ford Fusion. But since the technology has not been perfected, the cars will come with human backup drivers to handle any unexpected situations.

Although other companies including Google are testing self-driving cars on public roads, none offers rides to regular people. As an enticement, the autonomous rides will be free, the company said.

Uber, which has a self-driving research lab in Pittsburgh, has no immediate plans to deploy autonomous cars in other cities. But in an interview with The Associated Press, CEO Travis Kalanick said development of the vehicles is paramount for the San Francisco company, which has grown exponentially after starting seven years ago.

“We’ve got to be laser-focused on getting this to market, because it’s not a side project for us,” he said. “This is everything. This is all the marbles for Uber.”

Without drivers, the cost of hailing a ride will be cheaper than owning a car, changing the way we all get around, Kalanick has said.

By using human backup drivers, Uber is basically testing the technology and taking people along for the ride, said Bryant Walker Smith, a University of South Carolina professor who studies self-driving technology.

“Part of this is marketing in the sense that they’re going to be doing continued research and development of these systems,” he said.

The story notes that Uber has acquired Otto, the startup company that provided kits for driverless trucks. As you know, I remain skeptical, not of driverless cars themselves – I have no doubt the technology is coming, probably sooner than I’m comfortable with – but of the grand predictions of how they will reshape society. I think the questions are more complicated, and the time frame is longer, than some people think. But who knows? I’m sure the lure of free rides will give Uber plenty of demand for this test, and there will be much to learn from it. I’ll be very interested to see how it goes. And hey, driverless Ubers sure would solve that pesky background check issue, elsewhere. The Wall Street Journal, Kevin Drum, the Guardian, and the Chron’s Chris Tomlinson have more.

New study questions Uber effect on DUI

Interesting.

Uber

The introduction of ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft hasn’t had any impact on the number of fatalities related to drunken driving, a newly published study finds.

Researchers at the University of Southern California and Oxford University looked at the 100 most populated metropolitan areas, analyzing data from before and after the introduction of Uber and its competitors, and found that access to ride-sharing apps had no effect on traffic fatalities related to drinking alcohol.

Uber has repeatedly pointed to drunken-driving reduction as a benefit of its service. A 2015 blog post on its website, titled “Making Our Roads Safer For Everyone,” notes a survey Uber conducted with the group Mothers Against Drunk Driving that found anecdotal evidence that people believe their friends are less likely to drive drunk since the introduction of Uber.

[…]

In the latest study, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, the researchers analyzed county-level data from 100 metropolitan areas in dozens of states and controlled for the effects of state laws that could affect drunk driving fatalities, such as bans on texting while driving, marijuana-related legislation and taxes on alcohol.

The authors also separated total alcohol-related traffic fatalities from those that occurred on weekends or holidays, and found no reduction in deaths with the introduction of Uber in either case.

So, why? The authors of the study speculated that drunk people might not want to shell out for the services.

The abstract is here; it looks like the full study is not freely available. I tend to give Uber and its ilk the benefit of the doubt here, as they do provide an option for people who may not have, or may not think they have, any alternative to driving. It may be a few years before we can feel confident in an answer to this. In the meantime, add this to the pile.

El Paso revises its rideshare rules

Uber gets its preferred regimen.

Uber

The El Paso City Council approved an ordinance designed to ease regulations and fees on taxis and ride-sharing companies like Uber.

Amendments to the Transportation for Hire Ordinance, which Council approved unanimously on Tuesday, requires all businesses have an operating authority permit and drivers pass a background check. It will also do away with 26 fees and cut costs up to 95 percent.

[…]

Other loosened regulations include no longer requiring drivers to have a medical certification and outdated two-way radios. City vehicle inspections will be eliminated and driver and vehicle permits will not be required. The age limit on vehicles has also been removed.

The newly-passed ordinance also requires companies to provide wheelchair-accessible vehicles upon request. That means Uber would have to have an agreement with a cab company to pick up a client if they did not have a vehicle available.

See here for a preview of the vote, and this story from May about the direction El Paso took in redoing its rules. They basically took the approach of easing or removing regulations that had been in place for traditional cab companies rather than retrofitting existing rules to Uber. And yes, that means no fingerprint requirements, which as you can see from that first story is not what the cab companies wanted. As is their way, Uber had threatened to leave El Paso if the rules weren’t changed; their triumphant press release following this action congratulates them for becoming “the 13th Texas city to adopt modern ridesharings rules”. One presumes Lyft has an interest in this as well, but as of today they don’t operate in El Paso, so we’ll see if that changes.

iCars

Hey, look, it’s a new rideshare option for Houston.

A new ride app promises on-demand luxury car services — and no surge pricing.

San Francisco-based iCars put its luxury ride app in drive for the Houston and Dallas markets, as the company continues to expand throughout Texas and the U.S., according to a July 11 press release. The service started in the Golden Gate City in early 2016.

The company offers luxury sedan, SUV and “sprinter class” options, with the latter choice offering bigger vehicles to accommodate more passengers. The service offers more than on-demand usage. Users can set up booking times near demand or even for future dates, and the company aims its services toward hotels and travel management companies.

Regional transportation companies provide ride services for the company. The driving companies for iCars must meet a certain set of requirements, including $1 million in commercial liability insurance, regularly maintained vehicles and random drug testing.

Their Facebook page is here, and here is a press release from iCars’ debut in San Francisco in February. From the description, it sounds like this is a system to connect people to existing sedan/limo services, similar in fashion to Pocket Cab, which would make it a competitor of Uber Black. I could be wrong, but that’s the impression I get. It’s clearly not for the masses, but I say the more options, the better.

Fort Worth adopts minimalist rideshare regulations

This ought to be interesting.

Uber

Months of work redrafting the city’s vehicle-for-hire ordinance wrapped up Tuesday night when the Fort Worth Council approved new rules that require transportation companies only to register with the city.

The approach chosen by Fort Worth avoids more onerous regulations — including requirements for fingerprinting drivers — that proved problematic in other cities. And it gives Uber, Lyft and others the hands-off regulatory environment they had pleaded for in the city.

The City Council long ago began exploring how to cover the fledgling industry with an ordinance, only to realize months into the process that it didn’t want to regulate the transportation companies, saying smartphone app-based ride share companies had changed the business landscape.

Council members opted for free-enterprise and competition despite a last-minute plea from the traditional taxicab companies that wanted the city to continue to regulate their industry. Taxicabs have always been regulated, they said, and that’s what the public expects.

Jack Bewley, president of Yellow Cab, said the proposed ordinance did not ensure safety for the passengers. He warned the council the city could see an influx of one-man cab companies with owners who have criminal backgrounds and can’t get insurance.

“This ordinance is being set up where an individual … can come down here and say I want to start a taxicab company,” Bewley said.

Lyft

The council voted 8-0 to approve the new ordinance. Councilman Jungus Jordan was absent.

Mayor Pro Tem Sal Espino said the ordinance meets market innovation.

“Council, in articulating its vision for the regulatory framework, decided the best way is the free-market approach. At this point in time, in the evolution of the ride-sharing services and the transportation services, this is just another option. After much debate, after much discussion, we’re ready to move forward.”

Mayor Betsy Price said, “We just must embrace all forms of transportation to avoid gridlock in our city and allow our citizens to get around. Part of our job is to not cause undue burden on businesses or citizens. Unlike other cities that have gotten so hung up in the hot potato politics of this, Fort Worth is going to do it the right way.”

[…]

Under the new ordinance, which takes effect Oct. 1, companies, whether motorized or non-motorized, will pay a $500 operating license fee that’s good for two years. The companies will be required to annually certify that they have done national background checks on their drivers, that their drivers hold valid driver’s licenses and that drivers and vehicles are properly insured.

The ordinance does come with a strict penalty if the company is found not to be in compliance — it will lose their operating license for two years. Passengers can file complaints with the city.

Well, that’s one way to do it. I sent an inquiry to Uber about how Fort Worth’s ordinance differs from those in San Antonio and Dallas, and I was informed that while Uber’s screening process is the only mandatory background check for those cities, San Antonio offers drivers an opportunity to voluntarily undergo a fingerprint background check, and drivers in Dallas are required to obtain a City permit. The only additional step drivers are required to complete to obtain that permit is undergoing an additional vehicle inspection.

It will be interesting to see what the response is when the inevitable problems arise. Bad apples will always slip through, as they have done in the pre-Uber days, and some of them will turn out to be the kind of person you’d really want to be the kind of person to be identified by a background check as a bad risk. It’s Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Johnson and the members of their City Council who would face any consequences from this. It could easily be overblown by sensationalist news coverage, but if something bad does happen, it could really blow up. Just something to keep an eye on, and to keep in mind as the legislative session approaches.

Not addressed by this story is the question of access to rides for people with disabilities. One of the reasons why cab companies have been regulated the way they are is because they have a mandate to provide service for residents who can’t get themselves around town. How will that work under this structure? In Houston, Uber agreed to provide a certain number of vehicles that can accommodate people with disabilities, and in their more recent threat to leave they stated that accommodations for the disabled could be achieved under a regulatory scheme that was more to their liking (scroll to the bottom). In some cities, this UberACCESS service has partnered with transit agencies as well. What responsibilities do rideshare and traditional cab companies have in this new environment? There’s already litigation over the issue of disabled Texans being denied service by rideshare companies. I’m sure they’ll be watching what happens in Fort Worth with great interest.

All that said, this could work out fine. It may be that the issue of access for disabled folks will continue to be addressed in a way that is acceptable to all, and it may be that the number of problems with drivers of questionable backgrounds is vanishingly small. This will certainly provide fodder for that debate. It’s not the approach I would take, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. We’ll just have to see how it goes. The Chron has more.

Lawsuit filed in Austin over short-term rental ordinance

Geez.

The gig economy — specifically, the short-term rental industry that includes HomeAway, Airbnb, and VRBO — is under attack by the city of Austin, Texas, according to a lawsuit filed in state court June 20, which was sponsored by the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

The lawsuit asks the court to issue an injunction halting the enforcement of an Austin city ordinance, which became effective March and governs short-term rentals.

The seven plaintiffs named in the lawsuit are people who either have sought to stay in short-term rental properties or to ease their residential properties for less than 30-day periods.

Neither the short-term tenants nor their landlords engage in any activities that should cause them to lose their rights to privacy and to assemble freely, according to Robert Henneke, general counsel for the Center for the American Future at TPPF.

But the lawsuit alleges that Austin’s short-term rental ordinance violates precisely those rights of the tenants and landlords.

Specifically, the ordinance bars the gathering of more than 10 people inside the short-term rentals and more than six in the front or backyards of the homes. It also limits to sleeping or “any joint activities” in the homes after 10 p.m.

The ordinance also requires the landlords and tenants to permit law enforcement officers into their homes to “enter, examine, and survey, at all reasonable times, all buildings, dwelling units, guest rooms, and premises,” even if the officers don’t present a search warrant.

The ordinance represents part of a trend that allows for the “Californization” of the central Texas city or a region where more government regulation, rather than less, is the norm, said James Quintero, director of the Center for Local Governance at TPPF.

You can see a copy of the lawsuit here, via the Austin Business Journal, which also provides some info about the rental ban, which passed in February. I know nothing about this saga, but I do know that aside from a few stray criminal justice issues, the TPPF is wrong about pretty much everything, in particular matters relating to government regulation. Which doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t prevail in court, of course, just that one should never expect them to be on the side of the greater good. The state of Texas does not currently play a role in regulating short-term rentals. Given this action, I won’t be surprised to see some kind of statewide AirBnB bill pushed in the next legislative session, in the same way that a statewide Uber/Lyft bill is being touted; the TPPF name-checked Uber and Lyft in their statement, so you can see how that will play out. The Statesman has more if you have access to their premium content.

Rep. Isaac asks FTC to step in on Austin rideshare regulations

Seriously?

Rep. Jason Isaac

State Rep. Jason Isaac has asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Austin’s rules for ride-hailing companies, raising concerns that the city’s “burdensome regulations” are anti-competitive.

In the letter dated June 7, Isaac said he thought the city “erected a pernicious barrier to competition” through its rules, which have become a point of contention in the statewide discussion about which layer of government should ultimately regulate the industry.

“I think this turned into an immature battle that left some people really scared and things were done out of a vindictive nature,” Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, said in an interview Thursday. “I personally believe that this is anti-competitive in nature, but I want to ask the FTC if they think it’s anti-competitive.”

[…]

In his letter, Isaac suggested the Austin City Council knew adopting the fingerprinting ordinance would spur Uber and Lyft to leave the city and, in turn, would “return the marketplace” to taxi companies.

“Despite knowing the ramifications of their vote, the Council added burdensome regulations and put the city at risk,” Isaac wrote.

Jason Stanford, a spokesman for Adler, said the city wants to have ride-hailing services.

“Nothing we’ve done would prevent Uber and Lyft from operating now in Austin just as before, and they are welcome to come back at any time,” he said in a statement. “All such companies operating here would be entitled to receive the same kinds of support and encouragement.”

You can read Rep. Isaac’s letter to the FTC here. Putting aside the absurdity of a Tea Party legislator calling in the Federal Government to intervene in a local matter – does Rep. Isaac want someone to pin a “Primary me!” sign on his back? – there’s the small matter of ridesharing startups sprouting in Austin like bluebonnets in March since the Prop 1 vote and subsequent Uber/Lyft pullout. How terrible can these regulations be if new options keep appearing in Austin (here’s another one!) seemingly every week? I pity the poor FTC official who will have to reply to this silliness with a straight face.

Another lawsuit filed over Prop 1 ballot language in Austin

Sure, why not?

Uber

It’s Uber Zimmerman!

Litigious District 6 Councilman Don Zimmerman sued Mayor Steve Adler in his official capacity Thursday, challenging the outcome of the Proposition 1 election on the grounds the ballot language “misled voters and omitted main features” and did not conform to the required format, case caption information shows.

A copy of the lawsuit, apparently filed late Thursday, was not immediately available.

“I’m deeply concerned about how the process, about how that went down,” Zimmerman said, late Thursday. “What I noticed from the campaign is that both sides were confused by the ballot language — the people for it and the people against it.”

If you’re keeping score, this is the second lawsuit filed over ballot language; there are also lawsuits over the use of automated text messages sent during the campaign, and over claims that Uber and Lyft’s exit violated federal labor law. The full Statesman story adds some further details.

A statement from the city of Austin defended the ballot measure and its language, saying, “The City Council respected the citizen-initiated petition process and voted to call a May election. The council made every effort to ensure that the ballot language fairly represents the petition’s intent.”

“The city prevailed in the pre-election lawsuit filed on this same topic, and is prepared to defend the actions it took as part of this election process,” the city’s statement said.

Zimmerman and his lawyer, Jerad Najvar of Houston’s Najvar Law Firm, argue that “the City’s much-touted fingerprint background check regime” will be enforced too slowly and “lacks any enforcement teeth” even once it’s fully implemented.

[…]

Zimmerman and Najvar asked in the suit that their complaint be consolidated with any other challenge to the same election to conform with a requirement under state law. They specifically cited the May 10 suit brought by Austin lawyer Martin Harry, who also objected to the city’s ballot language.

I still think the ballot language argument is dumb. Honestly, was there anyone in Austin who didn’t understand that Uber and Lyft wanted you to vote Yes on Prop 1? The proposition itself could have been written in Esperanto for all that it mattered. But as always, you never know what will happen once this sort of thing gets inside a courtroom. Engadget has more.

PocketCab

Austin isn’t the only city with rideshare innovation happening.

Sugar Land-based PocketCab LLC plans to fill the potential void with a new dispatch app for taxi and limousine companies if Uber does decide to leave the Houston market.

PocketCab works similarly to on-demand services today except that it pulls from independent limo and taxi drivers, not someone looking to use their own vehicle for brief periods like as in San Francisco-based Uber Inc.’s platform. Taxi drivers that don’t lease their vehicles from a large company like Yellow Cab struggle in today’s technology-driven industry and need a place to pick up more rides besides a cab stand at the airport, said Edmund Samora, CEO of PocketCab.

“Taxis need to get on a central dispatch system,” Samora told the HBJ. “Individually, they’ll never be found.

[…]

To list as a driver on the service, PocketCab charges about 10 percent of a drivers earnings, Samora said. The company wants to become the app for the city of Houston, which had previously said it wants to launch an app before the Super Bowl in 2017, but PocketCab will still launch in Houston regardless if it’s awarded the city contract or not, Sinhasane said.

Here’s their website and Facebook page. They’ve been operating in Houston since last October, and this story is as much about their joint venture with MobiSoft to improve their app platform as it is about their goals for Houston. I just like to keep track of this sort of thing, to remind us all that there are and will be other options out there.

And on that note:

When Michael Leto heard the news last month that Uber and Lyft were pulling out of Austin, Texas, because of an ordinance regarding driver background checks, he hopped on the first flight there. As the CEO of a Phoenix-based ride-hailing company called Fare, Leto saw an opportunity too good to pass up.

Leto arrived in Austin on a Monday afternoon, met with the mayor on Tuesday and got approval to operate in the city the following Friday. In Fare’s first two weeks there, the company had already paid nearly 1,300 drivers for roughly 20,000 trips. The business in Austin is so good, Leto said, he’s planning on moving his company headquarters there.

For smaller ride-hailing companies like Fare, the prospect of a suddenly wide-open marketplace — one without the 800-pound gorillas of Lyft and Uber in a city full of drivers and riders already accustomed to the concept of ride-sharing — is an unprecedented business opportunity. The scramble to build the “next Uber” in Austin has been rapid. With more than 900,000 residents, a huge university, active nightlife and a tech-savvy workforce, Austin represents an ideal test bed for new tech services.

Since Uber and Lyft left Austin, half a dozen ride-sharing operators have secured the city’s permission to operate, and a soon-to-launch nonprofit is likely to join the list soon. Another company is linking people to rides on a Facebook group while it perfects its peer-to-peer technology.

“You think about competing with multibillion-dollar companies, and then you show up in a city where all of the infrastructure and training have already been done,” said Leto. “It’s been quite a nice transition for us to come to Austin.”

[…]

Austin marks the first place where the public, which Uber often rallies to its side against regulators and policymakers, rejected its policies. Now it could also be the place that shows whether Uber and Lyft are indispensable.

So far, though, it’s unclear how exactly the companies’ departure will impact Austin residents. Demand for rides right now is typically lower than at other times of year. The spring semester for the University of Texas, which enrolls 51,000 students, ended the day before the vote, leaving fewer potential passengers in town. Tourism season hasn’t kicked into high gear yet, and some of the city’s largest draws won’t occur for months — including the Austin City Limits music festival, which begins in September, and South by Southwest, slated for next spring.

For the drivers — many of whom lost their livelihoods when Uber and Lyft left — the city has worked to help them bounce back. It’s held a job fair to match drivers with new companies and helped set up a hotline to assist former Uber and Lyft drivers in finding work or getting services like unemployment.

“Uber and Lyft left their drivers, in particular, and their riders, in the lurch,” said Councilmember Ann Kitchen, who heads the city council committee that drafted the safety rules for ride-hailing companies.

The city can’t favor any of the companies, but it has offered services for all of the drivers and companies that have shown interest.

Kitchen also said that the surge of companies applying to operate in Austin shows that the ordinance is not overly restrictive.

“We always said that Austin is a great market, and we expected there to be TNCs [transportation network companies] that wanted to come to Austin that would operate within the public safety values and requirements of the community,” she said. “That’s what all of these TNCs are doing.”

Not that that’s likely to cool anyone’s ardor for overriding local ordinances via the Legislature, but it is an interesting counter-narrative anyway. And don’t we usually celebrate when a company relocates its headquarters to Texas? That wouldn’t have happened here had it not been for Austin’s ordinance and the Prop 1 election. Funny how these things work, isn’t it?

What’s the roadmap for ridesharing regulations look like?

This is going to be a challenge, no matter how you feel about it.

Uber

Several state legislators have made it clear they’re eager to take control of rules for ride-hailing companies in Texas, shifting power from individual cities to the state. But with six months until the next legislative session, there’s no clear consensus on how exactly to go about it.

The Legislature has tried before — and failed — to come up with statewide regulations sought by industry heavyweights Uber and Lyft to free them from conflicting local rules.

But the recent decision by voters in Austin — the conservative state’s liberal capital — to reject rules sought by the ride-hailing giants has been a rallying cry for lawmakers.

“We don’t live in a democracy,” said. Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas. “All the authority cities have comes from the Legislature. They exist by the mercy of the Legislature. So we have a distinct role in overseeing all political subdivisions that we create, and we’ve got to make sure that they don’t trample economic liberty, personal liberty and freedoms.”

After the Austin election, Huffines immediately called for state regulations, or what he called “deregulations,” and was unconcerned with overriding the will of local voters.

Lyft

“People get riled up, and they pick up their pitchforks and they run to the ballot box or they run to the barn and tar and feather or lynch someone,” he said. “We have rules of law relating to protecting the views of the minority.”

Huffines wasn’t the only state legislator whose ears perked up at news that Austin voters upheld city rules for ride-hailing companies over those backed by Uber and Lyft. His Senate colleague, Georgetown Republican Charles Schwertner, also pledged to draft legislation.

“We’re exploring all options,” Schwertner said. “There’s the background check and then there’s fingerprinting, those are two separate issues. There’s competing discussions … I personally have not made any decisions as to what is the best statutory language to put in the bill.”

[…]

For Schwertner, the layered concerns of ride-hailing companies, drivers, riders and municipalities indicate that statewide regulations would be the best route forward.

“I think the safety issue in my mind is paramount,” he said, pointing to concerns with drunk driving. “[There is] the mobility issue, economic issue — it’s multi-tiered. It’s not just a local control versus state regulation issue. It’s all those things. When you look at the totality of the concerns, it favors statewide, uniform, consistent and fair regulation.”

I’m glad to hear that from Sen. Schwertner, since his initial statements following the rejection of Prop 1 were mostly bombast. I’m still not convinced that the Legislature needs to step in on what has traditionally been a local issue, but if we can have a reasonably serious discussion about what we want ridesharing regulations to accomplish, and if we can get Uber and Lyft to be more forthcoming with their data, then this could be a positive experience. My personal preference, if this must happen, is for the state to provide a minimum set of standards that cities and counties are then allowed to add onto as they see fit. And if we really care about having a free market and not just a greased skid for the two major players, then let’s be sure to not impede the new players who are trying to fill the niche that Uber and Lyft voluntarily left behind.

On the matter of overriding municipal ordinances, that appears to now be on the table:

After a visit Wednesday from top Uber brass, Texas state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, appeared to soften his position against a possible statewide bill that would replace city ordinances regulating rideshare companies.

As the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, Pickett’s position on the matter is crucial. Any bill regulating how companies such as Uber screen their drivers likely would be assigned to his committee, where Pickett would have power to block them.

[…]

Immediately after [the Austin Prop 1 rideshare vote], two Republican lawmakers said they would introduce bills in the 2017 legislative session that would overturn fingerprint requirements in Austin and Houston. Pickett said he would oppose such bills since they would thwart the will of local voters.

However, the El Paso lawmaker this week said there might be some room for compromise.

Houston Chronicle business columnist Chris Tomlinson in May speculated that the real reason Uber and Lyft are opposed to fingerprinting drivers is that their turnover rate is so high that many drivers won’t wait the 10 or so days it takes for the checks to be completed.

An Uber spokeswoman Thursday did not respond directly when asked if that is the case.

But Pickett said that on Wednesday he discussed a compromise with Uber brass that might solve that problem. Under it, riders could specifically request drivers who had undergone fingerprint-based FBI background checks.

“I told them that on the surface, it seemed like a hybrid that could work,” Pickett said.

Pickett goes on to say that he’d want to see if this idea is acceptable to cities and his colleagues first. It’s also not clear if Uber and Lyft would go for this; the basic idea has been floated in Austin with no apparent interest. There’s still a lot of moving parts here, and it’s not clear what if anything will be the consensus position, or at least the position that a majority will approve.

On a side note, good Lord is Don Huffines an idiot. Please, Dallas Democrats, find someone who can run against him in 2018. I know that’s an off-year and all, but his district isn’t that red. Even in the dumpster fire of 2014, SD16 was what passes for competitive, with Greg Abbott leading Wendy Davis by a 57.5-41.0 margin; not close, obviously, but slightly less Republican than the state as a whole. Please find a decent candidate and put some money into that race. Surely we can do better than this.

What a free market in ridesharing looks like

It looks like Austin right now.

Uber

When Uber and Lyft left Austin last month, they thought they were sending a message to the Austin City Council and other local governments looking to regulate them. Instead, their departure may pave the way for a revamp of ride-hailing in Austin that could draw the notice of other cities.

At least six new companies have launched in Austin, all emerging from the ashes of the Proposition 1 election that left the capital city without the two industry giants in vehicle-for-hire apps, which are also sometimes referred to as transportation networking companies.

“What [Uber and Lyft] have left us with appears to be the only open TNC market in a major city in the world, maybe,” said Austin Mayor Steve Adler. “In the marketplace, when you have a monopoly, or in our case a duopoly, that leaves town, what you would expect to see in the market is innovation and competition. And that’s what we’re now seeing happening in Austin.”

[…]

While other companies offering similar services had operated alongside Uber and Lyft, none had seen anywhere near the same level of success. An estimated 10,000 drivers found themselves out of work after the two companies ceased operations.

Newer faces have quickly flooded the market. There’s Arcade City, getme and Fare. There’s also Fasten, Wingz, zTrip and RideAustin. And InstaRyde will have its official Austin launch later this week.

Many of these companies, most of which have business models similar to those of Uber and Lyft, are still finding their footing, rushing to get drivers on the road and apps on Austinites’ phones in the race to emerge as the face of peer-to-peer transactions in the city. Some sprouted roots in Austin before Uber and Lyft left but have seen a recent boost in business.

Yet all of these firms still operate in the shadow of the two ride-hailing giants, struggling to distance themselves from their competitors while still offering comparable services. Even now, it’s unclear if any of these new companies will be able to offer the same level of coverage or see similar success.

[…]

Despite the turmoil from the election, Adler said he stands by the council’s decisions, even as the fallout has captured national attention.

“I have talked to mayors from around the country about this issue,” Adler said. “My position on this is that cities need to be as innovative and creative as are the industries and businesses and economies that it intersects with … There’s a suggestion that what’s happened here demonstrates that Austin is not an innovative city, and I don’t think what happened here indicates that at all … Austin is where ideas go to become real.”

Adler said it was unclear what the ride-hailing environment will look like down the line, but he said he is certain there will be “choices operating at scale in the city.”

The future could depend on whether the Legislature decides to take action on the issue next year. Immediately following the departures of Uber and Lyft, Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, said he will file legislation on the issue next session that emphasized a free market. Other GOP lawmakers expressed similar concerns on social media after the election.

Adler said while statewide regulation is “certainly an option” the Legislature can use, the atmosphere in Austin has already significantly shifted since the election.

“I think that when some of the legislators initially spoke, it was uncertain as to whether or not Austin had adopted something that would prevent the market to function,” Adler said. “I would say the evidence at this point would at least suggest that the market is working well.”

There’s little the Legislature can do until the 2017 session, but the House Committee on Business and Industry is holding an interim hearing on Wednesday to discuss “how Texas can support shared economy growth in the state.” Uber General Manager Sarfraz Maredia has been invited to testify.

In the meantime, the future of Austin ride-hailing will be determined by the market, Adler said, “as opposed to government deciding.”

Boy, wouldn’t that be a kick in the pants? I wonder if Sen. Schwertner and his Republican colleagues will recognize it if it is happening. I’ve been harping on all this for awhile, so I’ll try to restrain myself here. I don’t expect all these companies to be successful – frankly, if one or two of them make it, that will be great. Austin represents a unique opportunity for these companies. Let’s see what they can do.

Former drivers sue Uber and Lyft over leaving Austin

This ought to be interesting.

Uber

A pair of former drivers for Uber and Lyft filed dual class action lawsuits Thursday against the ride-hailing companies over their abrupt exit last month from the Austin market.

The lawsuits, filed in the U.S. District Court in the Northern District of California, claim that Uber and Lyft violated the federal Worker Adjustment, Retraining and Notification Act when they pulled out of Austin in May because they failed to properly notify their employees. Uber and Lyft have long maintained that their drivers are independent contractors and not employees.

[…]

Lyft

Todd Johnston, the driver behind the suit against Uber, drove for the company since May 2015 while David Thornton, the driver on the Lyft suit, drove for Lyft since October 2015. According to the suits, Johnson and Thornton, along with other Austin ride-hailing drivers, “lost their jobs” after the companies left Austin.

“Lost in the political theater surrounding the Uber and Lyft versus Austin City Council battle was the real-world effect on the thousands of Austinites who suddenly lost their incomes when Uber and Lyft abandoned Austin,” said Michael Slack, an attorney for Johnston and Thornton.

The federal notification act cited in the suits requires employers to notify their employees before any mass layoffs or the closure of a “facility” or “operating unit.”

I Am Not A Lawyer, so I have no idea if this suit has any merit or not. We do know, as the story says, that Uber and Lyft are very adamant about the whole worker-classification thing, so you can be sure that will be a key to their argument against the plaintiffs. How successful they are, and how successful the plaintiffs are at getting terms like “facility” to be interpreted in their favor, will determine how far this gets. Any actual attorneys want to comment on this?

First rideshare legislative hearing

There will be a lot more where this came from.

Uber

Representatives from Uber and Lyft urged lawmakers to adopt statewide regulations for the ride-hailing industry during a Texas Capitol hearing on Wednesday, citing what they called burdensome local ordinances that have driven them to leave Austin and other Texas cities.

The companies fielded pointed questions from members of the House Committee on Business and Industry about safety concerns and how local regulations, like those in Austin, impact their operations.

“I think we first need to recognize the obvious – technology is changing our lives,” said Committee Chairman René Oliveira, D- Brownsville, at the start of the hearing. “These changes are going to be very profound; you’ve already seen that in Austin … but this is not just an Austin, Travis County issue.”

Currently, regulations for ride-hailing companies are handled on a city-by-city basis. The Legislature discussed potential regulations during the 2015 session, but those bills failed to gain any traction. Now, several months ahead of the next session, lawmakers are revisiting the issue after Austin citizens voted in May to keep in place a requirement for ride-hailing drivers to undergo fingerprint-based background checks.

[…]

Lyft

Oliveira said while he tends to favor local control, “there are some issues that demand state intervention.”

“I am neutral on this issue,” he said. “What I am concerned about is finding out the necessary facts to determine – is this an issue that the state of Texas should get involved in or is it an issue of local control?”

During the hearing, he asked both [Rena Davis, a public policy manager for Lyft] and Sarfraz Maredia, the general manager for Uber in Texas, if they had data to support claims that they offer safer rides than taxis. Neither Davis nor Maredia provided specific numbers, to the frustration of the committee.

“I can’t believe [Lyft] or Uber doesn’t have data that we could look at that involves drivers and what the incident rate is,” Oliveira said, referring to the number of violent encounters between drivers and riders.

Both Maredia and Davis assured the panel they would provide lawmakers more information.

So let’s talk about regulations and transparency. After that post was publushed, Uber pointed me to this safety report on their website that goes over their criteria for background checks and what causes a potential driver to be eliminated. I appreciate the feedback and commend them for making that public. I also have this memo from Sarfraz Maredia on Uber’s safety procedures, as well as Maredia’s written testimony to the committee. A lot of what’s in those documents are things we have heard before from Uber, though perhaps not as much lately as the argument has largely defaulted to “do it our way or we’ll leave and then you’ll be sorry”. The thing is, I think Uber and Lyft could have done a lot better in Austin if they had focused on the things they do for customer safety instead of bludgeoning everyone to death with nonstop misleading ads and automated text messages. They could still gain some ground, in Houston and in Austin if they want to, by going back to that emphasis on their methodology and by being forthcoming with their data to back up their claims. Show us the numbers, on how many drivers they reject and for what reasons, compared to the cities, and how many incidents per capita there are in cities that do it their way versus cities that impose “unnecessary” regs on them, however they want to define that. If the cities in question can’t or won’t provide adequate data to allow them to make the comparisons, then so much the better for them and their argument that the cities are making them jump through hoops for no good cause. And if some of the numbers don’t show them in as positive a light as they’d like, be honest about it and see what can be done to improve. These guys say they’re bold innovators leading the way to a better future, well then do the math and show us the analytics to prove it. I promise to keep an open mind.

Since the Austin election and Uber and Lyft’s departure, startups and smaller ride-hailing companies have swarmed the city and its newly open market.

One company that has seen success in the capital city is getme, which has offered rides since December. The company’s founder, Michael Gaubert, told lawmakers Wednesday the company opposes statewide regulation of fingerprint background checks .

“The notion that there should be a state law ban on fingerprinting is not the correct way to go on this,” said Gaubert, who was joined at the hearing by former Dallas Cowboys player Michael Irvin, who he described as a close friend.

But lawmakers seemed committed to pursuing some sort of regulation next session, particularly Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, who cited concerns with the “patchwork quilt” of regulations across the state.

“It may not get to the governor,” he said of potential legislation, “but we’re going to try something.”

It would be nice to think that the Lege will look at the data and put forth reasonable proposals to address what can be done while allowing cities to take the steps they need to get the service they want. I doubt that’s what will happen, but it would be nice to think. Trail Blazers has more.

What do we really want from rideshare regulations?

From Medium:

Uber

To help ensure people have a fair chance at earning a living, Uber’s screening process embraces protections codified in the Fair Credit Reporting Act and other similar laws, ensuring lookback periods are reasonable and arrests without convictions or charges are not considered, among other indicators. We have said time and again that fingerprinting may not be the best way to determine whether or not someone is qualified and able to provide a safe and reliable ride. Further, there’s no evidence to suggest it would improve safety for passengers and it has costs to privacy that other approaches to background checks do not.

We believe the right path forward is to continue to improve the level of transparency and accountability that’s built-into our service and the processes available for screening drivers. Instead of relying solely on flawed databases that are known to have information gaps, our technology makes it possible to focus on safety before, during and after every trip.

When so many people’s lives are deeply affected by their inclusion in a potentially faulty database, it’s important that the public has the time and ability to analyze what’s in it and how it’s being used. We hope the DOJ and FBI not only grant these groups’ well-warranted request for an additional 30 days to comment on its proposal but also, consider the quality of the database and whether or not people should know how it may affect their lives.

From Jay Aiyer, in the Chronicle:

Historically, taxis have been one of the most heavily regulated local industries. City governments have restricted everything from the number of taxi licenses issued to whether a driver can use a cellphone while operating a vehicle. The list can be quite long and intrusive. Ride-sharing companies often argue that these regulations are unnecessary. After all, no other industry is subject to this level of restriction. Municipalities place no restrictions on the number of fast-food restaurants, nor do they require background checks for cable employees entering people’s homes. So why vehicles-for-hire?

The simple reason is the quasi-public function they serve. While private businesses, vehicles-for-hire serve a distinct public transportation function that is unique and still necessary in our society. They are an extension of the city in welcoming visitors, transporters of last resort for transit-dependent populations, and a critical safety valve for impaired drivers. They are simply not the same as a fast-food franchise or the cable company. They are a critical part of a community’s transportation network.

If we accept the need for some restrictions, the obvious question is: what kind? Public safety, access protections and insurance requirements seem obvious. We have a high expectation of safety and security when using a vehicle-for-hire, and having fingerprint-based criminal background checks to determine basic eligibility to drive is important. But even those restrictions should be relatively limited.

While we can agree we don’t want those convicted of serious crimes driving, we need to be more flexible to allow individuals who have paid their debt to society to be employed. Similarly, having broad insurance requirements is a critical need to ensure general public safety and avert catastrophic medical costs. We can’t have accidents with uninsured passengers or drivers. Finally, there should be no debate over the need to protect access to transit services. All people, regardless of neighborhood, should have access to vehicle-for-hire services.

So let’s talk about fingerprints for a minute here. Everyone agrees that there are some people we would rather not have driving cars we pay to ride in. We do background checks, which include checks of criminal records, to try to identify these people that we want to exclude. Fingerprints are an obvious entry point to this data. I presume there are others, for if not then I’m honestly unsure how Uber and Lyft can claim to check these records, but assuming there are then the argument we’ve been having is mostly about whether this is the most effective way of looking at arrest and conviction information.

The discussion we should be having comes back to that question about who we want to keep out of the driver’s seat. Ideally, that should involve a risk assessment of some kind. Not all criminal records are created equal. Violent crimes are a big red flag, but it’s also reasonable – our national conversation about drug reform notwithstanding – to prefer to not have people with drug convictions serve as drivers. There’s also a difference between being arrested and being convicted, and between recent arrests and those that happened ten, twenty, thirty years ago. How do we assess this information and come to reasonable, consistent decisions about who we grant permits to and who we refuse them to? And if we’re going to argue about what if any role fingerprints should have in this process, then it would greatly help to know how Uber and Lyft arrive at their conclusions about those who apply with them. What are their criteria for determining who’s in and who’s out? If they want us to trust them, we need to know that.

As I say, this is the discussion we should be having. It’s hard to do in an environment where a key stakeholder refuses to engage beyond “let us do it our way or we’re outta here”, but that’s where we are. To be sure, the current process mandated by the city could be improved, to make it more convenient and less time-consuming for would-be drivers. I don’t know the specifics so I’ll skip the part where I make suggestions, but I’m sure if Uber or anyone else wanted to make their own to the city, they would be amenable to them. It would help if Uber backed down from the ultimatum first, of course. You know, as a show of good faith. I for one would like to see Uber and Lyft and some other competitors operate in Houston. I’d also like for us to come to a consensus about who we do and don’t want doing the driving. I feel like if we can do this, the rest will follow. Who’s with me?

In the meantime, the State House Committee on Business and Industry is holding a hearing in Austin on Wednesday at 10 AM to discuss the sharing economy. Uber General Manager Sarfraz Maredia has been asked to testify, as have representatives from Houston and Dallas. A livestream of the hearing can be seen here. I’ll be very interested to see the reporting on this.

RideAustin

Another new player gets set to enter the Austin rideshare market.

Adding to the growing number of ride-hailing options in Austin since Uber and Lyft’s wholesale evacuation, a new nonprofit, community-based app called RideAustin was introduced today at the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar.

The app is being described as “innovative,” as well as made “by Austin, for Austin,” according to Joe Deshotel, RideAustin’s PR representative.

The initiative is a collaboration of Austin-based tech entrepreneurs and community leaders, for service that “[brings] the community together to build local solutions for Austin’s ridesharing future.” Formed as a nonprofit, and led by billionaire Austin tech giant and Trilogy founder Joe Liemandt and Crossover founder Andy Tryba, RideAustin’s overarching goal to become a “community asset,” per Deshotel, begins with uniting tech advancement with social responsibility.

Only two weeks in the making – Deshotel himself joined the group a week ago – the app joins Get Me, zTrip, Wingz, and still-in-the-works Warp Ridesharing. The RideAustin app will go live for iPhone users this morning, with service starting in June. (The Android version of the app is also expected to roll out in June.) Prospective drivers can start the on-boarding process, and get themselves scheduled for fingerprinting.

Blue-sky success would involve a smooth scale out from its initial services areas: the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport and the Downtown area, for which exact parameters haven’t been set. Not having “to worry about shareholders” as a nonprofit, it “will allow drivers to earn more [RideAustin will take a smaller than industry-standard commission] and riders pay less while helping local charities.”

Initial ride pricing itself is unknown, but unlikely to be as low as Uber and Lyft, at least to start. As reported previously, the best current option, Get Me, has been struggling with driver/rider matches, often forcing riders to wait longer than 10 minutes – Uber took an average of three minutes – and pay significantly higher prices.

Two unique RideAustin app features include a fare roundup option and “optional surge pricing,” says Deshotel. The fare roundup feature would allow riders round their fares up to the next dollar over the fare, to be given to a choice of as-yet-determined charities.

The more interesting (and potentially problematic) feature, optional surge pricing, would allow riders to opt-in to surges, allowing them first ride at premium cost. Riders electing not to opt-in, or financially unable to do so, will remain in driver queues, placed behind those accepting surge pricing. Though RideAustin is surely a business in all contexts, even with its additional aims at targeting the underserved and disabled, locating balance will be paramount, and could throw its first-look presentation as community-facing into immediate question.

Having this be a nonprofit is an interesting variation, and while I’m not exactly sure how well that will work, I see no reason why it can’t work. The point is that we should all hope that at least a couple of these new ventures find success, which they are then able to bring to other cities. I’ve heard an awful lot about the “free market” in ridesharing over the past several months, but the truth is that the rideshare market was and currently is entirely dominated by two enormous firms. That’s a “competitive” market in the same way that the broadband and cable/satellite TV markets are competitive. Surely that’s not what we really want here, right? I’ll say again, the single best outcome here is for multiple viable alternatives to Uber and Lyft to emerge. That would be good for riders, good for drivers, and good for city governments that don’t want to be held hostage by a couple of would-be monopolists. The Statesman and Buzzfeed have more.

San Antonio to re-revisit its rideshare requirements

Just when you thought it was all over

Uber

With Transportation Network Company (TNC) tension looming from Austin and Houston, the City of San Antonio is preparing its push to renegotiate with ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft. And one of the officials taking the lead on the talks believes they’ll be a model for other municipalities to follow.

“It’s important that we move forward and set the example. And I think we’re about to for the entire state and possibly the entire country,” said City Councilman Roberto Treviño at a meeting of the City Council Governance Committee. Treviño has spearheaded much of the City’s negotiations with TNCs.

Lyft and Uber left San Antonio in March 2015, after City Council mandated that drivers undergo fingerprint background checks. After a spring and summer without the services, a 9-month pilot compromise was struck to bring them back: The checks were made voluntary, with the City footing the bill for those who wished to undergo them. If a driver submitted to a fingerprint background check, they’d receive a special designation on the app’s screen.

The deal was portrayed as a win for consumer choice and TNCs alike. But few drivers have undergone the voluntary checks. There’s also no way to specifically hail a driver with a fingerprint background check, so passengers who want one must repeatedly hail a ride, then cancel it until they’re picked up by a fingerprinted driver.

Councilman Joe Krier said he hadn’t heard of “a single … bad experience with Uber or Lyft” from constituents. But Councilman Mike Gallagher expressed concerns over if citizens understood how to identify whether a driver has passed the fingerprint check.

“I almost wonder if we need to strengthen the ordinance with something that says ‘Caution: Driver has not passed fingerprint background check,'” Gallagher said.

See here for the background. If you live in San Antonio, there are a couple of public meetings scheduled to discuss this; see the link at the top for more details. One such meeting has already happened, and there’s also an online survey you can participate in. The operating agreements with Uber, Lyft, and GetMe expire in the next few months, with the GetMe one the lasting until October, but it looks like they will all be allowed to go through then. For all the sturm und drang in Austin, I’d say this is the situation to watch. if SA and the TNCs can come up with an agreement that is broadly acceptable to all, including the cab companies, then that could serve as a starting point for Austin and Houston, if they are inclined to redo their own ordinances. If not, well, that will add to the impetus for the Lege to butt in. We’ll see how it goes. Texas Public Radio, San Antonio Magazine, and the San Antonio Business Journal have more.

Abbott comments on Austin rideshare referendum

Sort of.

Uber

Gov. Greg Abbott said Monday the fight is not finished when it comes to regulations in Austin that have driven ride-hailing companies out of the state capital.

“The issue’s not over,” Abbott said in an interview on CNBC. “Republicans in the Texas Legislature have already raised proposals coming up in the next session to override the Austin vote.”

Pressed on whether ride-hailing companies Lyft or Uber would return to Austin, Abbott said: “I’d just say the game is not over. It’s halftime, and we’ll see what happens in the second half.”

Lyft

[…]

In the CNBC interview, Abbott was read a tweet from venture capitalist Paul Graham that said “Austin has zero chance of being a serious startup hub without Uber and Lyft.” Abbott denied that, saying the city is “already a dynamic startup hub.”

“That process has already left the barn, as we say in the state of Texas, and there’s nothing that will slow it down,” Abbott said. “And the dynamics that’s causing Austin to be a startup hub are already in place and will not be diminished by” the Proposition 1 vote.

As we know, legislation has already been proposed to enact statewide ridesharing regulations, though whether such a bill (if it passed in the first place) would include fingerprinting requirements or not remains an open question. Normally, one doesn’t have to parse Greg Abbott’s words closely, but I can’t tell from this story where he really stands. Is this a priority for him? Is he anti-fingerprints? Unclear at this time. I’m not sure if that’s because Republicans are not of one mind when it comes to fingerprinting, and Abbott wants to see how the wind is blowing before he commits himself, or if it was just a vague question asked by an idiot CNBC host that wasn’t designed to elicit a specific answer. In any event, Abbott and Dan Patrick don’t have to single this out as a priority to get a bill to pass, but if they do it increases the likelihood of it happening.