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Test-riding Uber, the populist car service you summon with a mobile app

Posted by Scott Kirsner  October 18, 2011 04:07 PM

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San Francisco-based Uber is planning to launch its transportation service in Boston this Thursday. They already operate in New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Chicago, and they've been pilot-testing it here over the past few weeks. I used the app this afternoon to travel from Kendall Square to Brookline in a semi-swanky black Mercury Grand Marquis.

Uber is a way to summon a town car using an app on your mobile phone. For livery drivers, it's a way to fill in extra work at times when they might otherwise be sitting around. And for consumers, it's a way to get a ride in a car that's more spacious and better-maintained than your typical cab. And the Uber app also provides better information about when exactly you'll be picked up.

Here's how it worked for me...

As my 1:30 PM coffee meeting in Kendall Square was wrapping up, I opened the Uber app on my iPhone. I'd already set up an account, giving Uber my credit card information. The iPhone's built-in GPS knew just about where I was, but Uber's app gave me the opportunity to adjust my location to the exact spot on the map where I was sitting. (Voltage Cafe, at 303 Third Street.) It told me that a driver named Hassan would arrive in about ten minutes, and that Hassan had received a 4.9 star rating from other passengers.screenshot1.png

I left the app open on my phone, and could watch on the map as Hassan's vehicle made its way from Boston across the river.

You don't tell Uber where you're going — the company doesn't want its drivers to accept or reject passengers based on their destination — and so one drawback is that the app doesn't really give you a sense in advance for how much the ride will cost. (Uber tries to position its service as slightly more expensive than a cab, but far less expensive than a traditional car service.)

Exactly ten minutes later, I saw Hassan's car pull up outside. I told him where I was going, and we set off down Memorial Drive toward Brookline. Suction-cupped to his car's windshield was an iPhone supplied by Uber, which relayed rider requests to him, and allowed him to accept or reject them based on whether he was available. The car was spotless, and Hassan was attired in a blue suit and natty striped tie.

uberdriver.jpgThere's a $7 base charge as soon as you get into an Uber car, plus time and distance charges. (Uber charges a distance fee when the car is traveling faster than 11 miles per hour, and a time fee below that speed.) The final fee includes any tolls as well as a tip, and is automatically billed to your credit card.

When I arrived at my destination, the total — $23 — showed up on my phone, and shortly after on Hassan's. We both had the opportunity to rate one another on a scale of one to five stars. (I gave Hassan five stars.) By the time I opened my laptop at my home office, Uber had e-mailed me a receipt: $7 base fare, $14.56 distance, and $2.21 time, for a total of $23. (They round down to the nearest dollar.) Uber takes 20 percent off the top, with the driver receiving the rest.

The cost of my Uber ride was comparable to what it would've cost to hail a Cambridge cab. That would've run me about $18.40 without a tip. When I tried to get an estimate for how much it would cost to arrange for a Boston Coach sedan to do the trip, the company's Web site told me that arranging for a car in 15 minutes would be impossible. But with an hour's notice, the Cambridge-to-Brookline trip would've cost $111, including tip.

I mainly try to travel around Boston using public transportation, my bike, and occasionally, my own car or a Zipcar. I rarely use taxis or town cars. I can definitely envision myself summoning an Uber car when I'm pressed for time, or traveling a route that requires multiple T transfers. Also, for airport or train station trips when I'm schlepping lots of luggage.

Based on this first experience, I liked getting a more spacious and spiffier car than the typical Boston or Cambridge cab, and knowing exactly when it would arrive. And the price felt like a good value — a town car experience at a yellow cab price point. All that was missing was the Wall Street Journal waiting for me on the seat...

Uber feels like a car service designed for the 99 percent.

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Innovation and technology news that matters, on a new website from the Boston Globe, featuring Scott Kirsner and other original reporting.

About Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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