Ride-sharing technology has arrived in the Palmetto State.
UberX, a GPS-enabled app that connects passengers to freelance drivers, launches in Charleston, Greenville, Columbia and Myrtle Beach at noon Thursday.
Drivers that have registered with the company use a GPS-enabled app to find passengers nearby, and passengers use the app to order rides and pay for them ahead of time using a credit card.
The app has sparked debate in cities across the country over the issue of taxi regulations because unlike traditional cab drivers, UberX drivers use their own cars and personal automobile insurance, and they're not typically licensed by city or state legislatures to give people rides for fares. The company behind UberX said it's self-regulating because it requires its drivers to pass state and federal background checks, vehicle inspections and provide up-to-date auto insurance information.
Company officials with Uber Industries, the San Francisco-based startup company behind UberX and a similar luxury chauffeur service, held three driver registration meetings Wednesday in North Charleston for local residents who had applied online to be UberX drivers.
"Charleston is going to be a huge market for us with the bar scene downtown and all the restaurants and the beaches," Uber representative Eric Wimer said to a group of about 15 UberX drivers at one of the meetings. "There is a great need here for transportation alternatives. We have no worry about demand here and we're confident this is going to be our busiest city in South Carolina."
He said drivers take home 80 percent of their fares, and if business is slow at first, the company guarantees at least a $12 hourly wage. He said business will likely pick up quickly in Charleston because thousands of people had already downloaded the app, which is available for free in Google Play and the App Store.
Wimer also explained the auto insurance policy to drivers at the meeting, which has been a hot-button issue in other cities. He said their personal policies would be their primary coverage while on the job, and if their insurers refuse coverage in the event of an accident, he said, Uber's secondary insurance policy of $1 million would cover them.
Those who partner with the company as UberX drivers in South Carolina may be taking a range of risks with their insurance companies and local and state laws.
Generally speaking, basic auto insurance policies would not cover drivers using their personal cars as public transportation, said Mike Barry, spokesman of the Insurance Information Institute.
Also, city and state officials have geared up for Uber's first launch in South Carolina and are considering ways to approach the company's entry.
The S.C. Public Service Commission, which regulates public transportation services, will decide after a hearing with Uber on Aug. 24 whether the company should be regulated like any other taxi service. That would require regular vehicle inspections, keeping commercial auto insurance on file with the state and stricter background checks on drivers.
The city of Charleston also has its own set of rules, which was made clear in a letter its legal department sent to Uber in May. If UberX drivers don't comply with city requirements, such as being licensed chauffeurs they will be subject to fines of up to $1,049 or 30 days in jail, the letter said.
Taylor Bennett, a spokesman for Uber, said the company hopes to work with city and state officials on a compromise that would accommodate the ride-sharing app.
"The current parameters in cities, particularly there (in Charleston), they don't consider Uber or innovative technologies, they don't pertain to technology companies as opposed to transportation companies," he said. "Our hope is to work with those city and state officials to modify those regulations for ride-sharing and find a permanent home for Uber in the city and the state."
Alexander Franklin, a co-owner of Charleston Green Taxi, said he's confident the local taxi services will remain the primary transportation services in Charleston. Green Taxi and Yellow Cab of Charleston have launched their own cab-hailing apps in the past few weeks.
"I think most people will hopefully see the dangers of this and continue using registered transportation services to get around," he said. "It's not like the transportation industry isn't capable of staying up with technology. We'll be able to do the same things with our app, we'll just be able to do it legally."
Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail