A phone app that has revolutionized the way people catch rides in cities around the globe may be en route to South Carolina, but the ride here could get bumpy.
Uber, a San Francisco-based tech company that connects passengers to freelance drivers with an app called uberX, has been putting up ads and job posts for drivers in the Charleston area on social media and on Craigslist. The company also has been recruiting for driver positions in Columbia, Myrtle Beach and Greenville.
While the company could not confirm definite plans to launch uberX in Charleston or any other South Carolina market, spokeswoman Kaitlin Durkosh said the ads are a way to test markets' interest in the service.
"We often test ads to measure the viability of uberX in different markets. We are excited about the potential opportunity to connect riders and drivers in Charleston," she said in a statement. "While there is no standard timeline we follow, we do often find that both riders and drivers in cities are looking for increased choice and economic opportunities. ... We've received a great response so far from riders and drivers in Charleston and look forward to the possibility of meeting that demand."
Whether the company will hit any road blocks on the way to South Carolina is yet to be determined.
UberX is considered a ride-sharing service because the app connects passengers with everyday people driving their own cars for fares that are often cheaper than traditional taxi fares.
According to Uber's website, each driver is vetted by the company to ensure he or she does not have a criminal record, is at least 21 years old, has auto insurance and drives a four-door car in "excellent condition" that is no older than 2005.
But their vetting process may not meet the standards set out by the state Public Service Commission, which regulates public transportation services including taxis. The Office of Regulatory Staff is considering ways to handle potential ride-sharing companies such as Uber that are not classified as typical taxi businesses.
"The main thing we need to address is whether the Public Service Commission believes that this business model would bring them (ride-sharing companies) under PSC regulation," said Dukes Scott, executive director of ORS.
If so, Uber may be required to follow the same rules as taxi companies in the state - which could involve vehicle inspections, more thorough background checks on drivers and keeping commercial auto insurance on file with the state for each driver.
The issue of regulation has been at the heart of the controversy in other cities.
Taxi companies across the globe are upset that American car-paging services aren't required to follow the same decades-old rules to enter the market. Last week, large portions of European cities such as London and Milan were put at a standstill when taxi drivers parked in the middle of major streets to protest the ride-sharing companies.
Other opponents of Uber take issue with the company not insuring its drivers, but rather "partnering" with freelance drivers who have personal auto insurance policies.
While taxi services push for a level playing field, Uber and other car-paging services have argued that they were established as an alternative to traditional taxi services, and that grouping them all together with the same regulations may stunt the growth of tech-driven innovation.
Stanfield Gray, a founder of the local Dig South festival who often works with tech startups, said the disruptive nature of the ride-sharing business may be a positive force for the transportation industry in Charleston.
"My opinion is more broad in the sense that I think competition and technological disruptions are ultimately good for the economy and good for the community. It helps us stay innovative and think of solutions that could solve big challenges and make consumers' lives more efficient," he said.
Jerry Crosby, a part owner and vice president of Yellow Cab of Charleston, said his company and several others across the state have discussed starting a "legislative process to halt any Uber involvement in South Carolina."
"We are just taking the initiative to say, 'We just don't want you (Uber) in our backyard. We don't think it's good for the transportation business,' " Crosby added.
Meanwhile, the cab company has prepared to compete with Uber should it arrive in Charleston.
Last week, Yellow Cab of Charleston unveiled its first smartphone app that allows passengers to book rides, get cab fare estimates and track the status of their cab drivers' arrival - many of the features that have made Uber popular with consumers.
"I said, let's create our own app so that when an individual gets picked up by Yellow Cab, they know it's been inspected, the drivers have been licensed and that there is plenty of insurance backing up this ride if anything should happen. ... You don't really have that with Uber, regardless of what they may say," Crosby said.
Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail
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