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Sunday, December 2, 2012

In App Land, Lots of Ways to Get a Ride

In Monday's Times, Brian X. Chen writes about the legal struggles of Uber, whose app connects users with car service drivers. Uber has captured the fancy of many riders but faces opposition from regulators and the taxi industry. While the company is perhaps the most prominent tech start-up looking to shake up the car service and taxi industries, it is not alone. Here is a quick look at the approaches being pursued by various companies.

SMARTPHONE CAR SERVICES: Uber, its main competitor Taxi Magic, and smaller outfits like Cabulous essentially work as dispatch systems for existing black car or taxi services. Regulatory scrutiny has led to a patchwork of coverage across the country. Taxi Magic, for instance, has not been able to move into markets like New York, and operates a parallel service, Sedan Magic, which offers a slightly different (and more expensive) service.

PEER-TO-PEER RIDE SHARING: SideCar and Lyft, which operate in the San Francisco area, allow pe ople to give strangers rides in their own cars. The companies pitch their services as something of a hybrid between a capitalistic transaction and a social opportunity.

Sunil Paul, the founder of SideCar, says that because the drivers do not necessarily get paid - a fare is negotiated for each ride and is referred to as a donation - the drivers are not professionals, and thus not subject to the same regulation as taxis and black car services. The California Public Utilities Commission disagrees, and recently levied $20,000 fines against SideCar and Lyft, along with Uber, for operating without licenses. Mr. Paul says that the companies are meeting with the commission soon to try to resolve the dispute.

“We are using a new medium, and we need new rules,” Mr. Paul said.

TAXI SHARING: A number of start-ups have tried to create services that would allow people to share taxis, but for the most part they did not reach the critical mass needed for a rider to re liably find people with which to share. Weeels, a New York-based start-up that eventually admitted defeat and pulled its app from the iTunes store, is working on a specific population: people waiting on the taxi line at La Guardia Airport's Terminal C on Sunday nights and Monday mornings. An attendant uses a private iPad application to group riders going to various parts of the city. The system proved helpful in the week after Hurricane Sandy. Weeels said it arranged about 20 rides an hour during peak times in the days after the storm, when cars and gas were particularly scarce.

David Mahfouda, one of the company's founders, said that it will expand at La Guardia first, then look to broaden its services. “We're starting from a particular problem and building up to a generalized transportation solution, and not vice versa,” he said.

PEER-TO-PEER CAR SHARING: If SideCar and Lyft are an informal alternative to taxis, RelayRides and Getaround are similar alternat ives for car rentals. Drivers can arrange to rent their own cars to strangers when they are not being used. While the practice has raised some legal questions about whether insurers could drop drivers who participate, the companies say they have not faced the same type of opposition as the car service start-ups.