Uber Launches On-Demand Car Service in Detroit

3/28/13Follow @XconomyDET

If you’re a car-challenged Detroiter like me, you have at least five phone numbers for taxis in your contact list. There’s the industry standard Checker Cabs, whose line is busy more often than not; there’s the friendly cab driver you had one time who gave you his private number and said to call that number in the future instead of main dispatch, but who is rarely available when you need him; there’s the number for the ridiculously expensive car service that takes you to the airport; and then finally you have one or two unlicensed cab drivers whose phones may or may not be in service the day you call.

Getting a taxi in Detroit shouldn’t be this hard, and the San Francisco-based startup Uber agrees. It’s formally launching its on-demand car service in the Motor City this week, after coming  to the realization that Detroit could be a lucrative market for its services and sneaking into town three weeks ago for a soft launch.

“What’s happening in Detroit is a livening up of its downtown, and that’s a trend we want to get ahead of,” says Ryan Graves, Uber’s head of operations. Graves thinks Uber can have an impact in Detroit, a city where people might hesitate to drive to certain locations after dark despite the fact that some of the area’s best nightlife and entertainment is there on offer. “You can hit a button and get a ride to and from anywhere in the city, and that’s what Detroit needs as progression unfolds. It’s a really good business call for us to be here.”

Uber works like this: You download an app, available both to iPhone and Android users, and set up an account tied to your credit card. When you need a ride, you tap the app a few times, it picks up your location, and a car is dispatched. Graves says the car will arrive in about five minutes, and if it takes longer than 10 minutes, he considers that a failure. When the car does arrive, there will be a bottle of water waiting in the back for you. Uber’s motto is, “Everyone’s Private Driver,” and that’s the experience it aims to create.

Graves notes that Uber charges 10 to 15 percent more than a taxi does, but he emphasizes that there is no tipping involved. The app charges a rider’s credit card, so no cash ever exchanges hands in the car. To enhance safety, both drivers and passengers rate each other after the ride. He says there’s also an intense screening process that drivers must pass to get hired.

But what of the other safety issues taxi drivers in Detroit face, such as the rash of deadly robberies that occurred last fall? Or this murder that happened in January? After that incident, the slain driver’s cab company pleaded with city law enforcement for help protecting drivers.

Graves admits he hadn’t been aware of those incidents, but he says that “safety is an opportunity for us.” He points out that Uber’s clientele, because they have their … Next Page »

Sarah Schmid is the editor of Xconomy Detroit. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET

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