- The Washington Times - Monday, September 24, 2012

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick told D.C. Council members Monday that legislation and proposed regulations to oversee the burgeoningsedan-for-hire industry in the District are chock full of “gray areas” and impediments that could harm his business and the customers who rely on it.

Uber, which advertises itself as “your on-demand private driver,” allows customers to request a ride from sedan companies that partner with the firm by using an application for smartphones or the Web. It has gained fans as an alternative to the oft-derided taxicab industry in the District.

But many taxi drivers feel the company should play by the same rules as the city’s cab fleet since they have dealt with regulatory oversight for years.

Uber’s negotiationswith city lawmakers, marked by an aggressive campaign by Mr. Kalanick and his supporters to influence the council, showed some signs of progress in a hearing Monday before the council’s Committee on the Environment, Public Works and Transportation that forced parties to confront questions of regulations versus exercising free enterprise in the nation’s capital.

Mr. Kalanick tussled with the council earlier this year when a broad bill intended to improve the taxicab industry prompted city lawmakers to flirt with a minimum fare for companies such as Uber so they did not compete with traditional taxi companies. After a stern response from Mr. Kalanick and his supporters, the council carved out an exemption that allowed Uber to operate outside of regulatory oversight by the D.C. Taxicab Commission through Dec. 31.

The commission announced last week it would start vetting proposed sedan-class regulations to address companies operating exclusively through electronic reservations.The new class of regulations would mandate transparent fares from drivers who are “authorized, licensed and competent,” commission Chairman Ron M. Linton said his testimony Monday.

Mr. Kalanick said the city has made it difficult for drivers to get a sedan license, which the regulations demand, from the commission. He also objected to lawmakers’ prodding into the company’s flexible fares and evolving features as it grows.

The proposed regulations are out of step with what customers and drivers who partner with his firm demand, demonizing the industry that allows riders to summon a ride electronically, according to Mr. Kalanick.

“Sedans didn’t all of a sudden grow horns and grab a pitchfork,”he testified in his firm’s defense.

“I will create massive revenue for the District of Columbia,” he added later.

Committee Chairwoman Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, expressed hope the city can find common ground with visionary sedan companies.

“This council is not an enemy of innovation,” she said.

D.C. Council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, suggested all taxicab regulations should be liberalized since there could never be fair competition if one segment was “unbridled” by regulation.

“I think this leaves us in a dilemma because the regulatory costs and burdens are increasing on one sector of this industry, while another sector of the industry is unregulated,” Mr. Graham said. “And there is something fundamentally questionable about that landscape.”

Some drivers testified that partnering with Uber has turned their lives around and allows them to provide for their families. Yet others attended the daylong hearing to complain about Uber, arguing the company has been given vaunted status.

While Uber was the hearing’s star attraction, several app-based companies such as Hailo — which connects customers with nearby taxis — touted their technology in testimony that often sounded like more of a competitive ad pitch than persuasive rhetoric before a legislative body.

Through the hearing, Ms. Cheh signaled that city leaders must learn to adaptto 21st-century technology that takes the taxi industry beyond the sight lines of a driver meandering around the block.

John Mason, who directs taxi and private-hire licensing in London, testified via Skype that electronic-hail technologies are an “extension of a doorman’s whistle” and have many benefits.

They could decrease harmful emissions by reducing the need for vehicles to roam around the city seeking passengers, he said. They can also eliminate discrimination based on a potential passengers’ race or overall appearance because the driver knows very little about the hailers before pulling up for the rides. Additionally, they create an electronic record that helps reunite passengers with lost items, Mr. Mason said.

He noted London applies the same standards of inspection and review to traditional cab drivers as ones who drive in partnership with Web apps.

“One minute, he may be doing a hail that has been provided by the application,” he said, “and the very next minute, he might be doing a street hail.”