Über Awesome

There are some problems seeking solutions, and solutions seeking problems, where only the creative use of technology offers a way forward. Not always, mind you; in the effort to make an app of everything, there are some products that beg the question, “Just what were they thinking when they built that?” Not so Über.

Über is a problem that was inconceivable to solve until recently. Namely, in any large metropolis, there are numerous black sedans waiting for their next scheduled airport run. Often for hours. There are also numerous people trying to get from point ’A’ to point ’B’.

Previously, the answer to the waiting problem was ’get a newspaper.’ And the answer to the travel problem was walking, taking public transit or hailing a cab. This often involved wistful stares at the idling black sedan with the newspaper draped over the steering wheel.

Then someone hit on the idea of ’what if people wanting to get somewhere could get a black sedan?’ On the face of it, it’s a complicated problem to solve. Many sedans are independently owned, or belong to specific fleets (the ones booking the airport rides). There is no centralized dispatch. There is no central number someone could call. Build the infrastructure to manage this, and you might as well open your own taxi company.

And yet, the requirements are fairly simple. Customers need a way to say they want a ride, and to identify their location. Drivers need to be able to identify their location, and that they are available. A credit card is required to seal the deal upon consummation of the trip.

With the advent of smartphones, all this is possible, and the above describes the essence of how Über works. My wife and I got to try it out for the first time last night, as we headed out to celebrate 20 years of living together.

After signing up for the service, booking a ride is easy. Über uses Foursquare in the background, so most locations it knows directly are retail establishments and hotels where tech-loving hipsters battle it out over who will be mayor. But it will readily take a typed address, and will show you a graphic display (in real time) of the taxis, sedans and SUVs available in your immediate vicinity. An estimate of the time you will wait is provided, and you can also ask for a fare estimate.

Book a sedan, and as soon as a driver accepts your ride you get a notification. Your phone tells you who they are, what they are driving (including their plate number) and gives you a real time display of where they are, updated in real time by the GPS in their phone. You also get a link to call or text the driver (and they can call or text you).

Once your sedan arrives, you simply get in, tell them where you want to go, and sit back and enjoy the ride. Your phone continues to update with your location as you move to your destination should you be curious about such things. On the other hand, you now have a private driver whose job is to know where you are, so why not just leave the driving to them?

When your ride is complete, your fare is instantly calculated (based upon a combination of time and mileage) and charged to the credit card on file. No transactions, no tips, no waiting for change or credit card approvals. Let your driver open your door, and smoothly carry on with your day.

The overall fare is a little more than you would pay for a taxi, but the ride and the service are infinitely superior. Pricing is demand-based during peak times, so if you are requesting a sedan at 12:30 in the morning on New Year’s Day, you should probably expect a premium charge.

For our night out, the trip there cost us $24 and our return was $20 (same distance, but our ride to dinner caught the tail end of rush hour, so it took longer) Cab fare would have been $14-16, plus tip. For the premium, I had a Lincoln Town Car with a courteous and professional driver who was happy to wait the five minutes more while we finished settling up for our dinner, and whisked us home in comfort.

Overall, Über is pretty awesome. Whoever designed Über has done a tremendous job in working out a solution to a problem that just a few years ago would have been impossible to address. The app now gets pride of place on the home screen of my phone. I will most certainly be riding with them again.

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