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Uber foresees possible deal with regulators in coming months

Officials with the Uber ride-sharing company say that if all goes well, they might have a preliminary deal with local regulators to operate in Tampa — legitimately — within the next few months, with formal county laws possibly going into effect sometime next year.

Still, Uber is pursuing state-level changes to taxi rules in Florida, where drivers already operate in a half dozen markets and Uber is already turning the traditional taxi business model inside out.

“Honestly, I think we would not be as popular a company as we are nationwide if the taxi area wasn’t one that needed improvement,” Jillian Irvin, East Coast public policy lead for Uber, said Thursday night during a meeting with The Tampa Tribune’s editorial board. Nothing is for sure, she said, but “we hope to have some kind of agreement within a matter of months.”

Even as Uber negotiates locally with taxi regulators, Uber plans new services, besides just shuttling human passengers — for instance picking up lunch, or a few groceries from a corner store.

Ride-sharing companies like Uber, Lyft and SideCar have upended the traditional taxi marketplace nationwide by offering a radically different model to on-demand transportation.

People who want to make extra cash can sign up, and if they pass those companies’ background checks and vehicle requirements, they can start offering rides. Passengers in turn download an app on their smart phone where they can register a credit card and request a pickup. Rates are generally set in advance, and at the end of a ride, the passenger approves the fare, hops out and the software completes the transaction. Rates can rise if a wave of passengers suddenly request rides — a method that ride-sharing companies say is a market-based system that automatically encourages more drivers to get on the road and pick up passengers.

This model overall side-steps the established rules set by the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission, which regulates and hands out licenses to taxi drivers, limos, tow trucks, ambulances and other companies who follow with pre-established rates and rules.

For the past several months, PTC staff have taken a dual track. On one side, PTC inspectors are issuing fines against Lyft and Uber drivers caught picking up passengers around Tampa, particularly at Tampa International Airport. On the other side, PTC executives have been negotiating with Lyft and Uber about ways to help the companies operate legitimately in the market. Lyft has been more responsive to talks, PTC Director Kyle Cockream has said in the past, though Uber has participated to some degree. The key issues remain whether drivers need specific background checks, commercial insurance, vehicle inspections and whether the PTC can impose pre-determined rates on rides. Recently, most of those issues have been worked out, Cockream said, though not all.

Wednesday, Uber’s Irvin, and Matthew Gore who is the general manager of Uber in Florida, said there are a few negotiable and non-negotiable points in their talks with the PTC.

For instance, Uber is open, they say to so-called “trade dress” requirements like signs on the cars that help passengers identify a driver at a distance. Uber has already improved its insurance with a $1 million policy, they say, so that Uber is a “secondary” insurance when drivers are on the way to pick up a fare, and Uber is the “primary” insurer when passengers are in the car.

Uber has modified its “surge” pricing, Irvin said, so that if there is a hurricane or disaster or other matter, that the company won’t veer into price gouging.

Other matters are non-negotiable, they say.

Though some governments want Uber to operate a kind of limo or car service company, Uber will not accept any minimum fare requirements, as is common with limo rides.

“Safety is important to us,” Gore said. “But minimum fares and minimum wait times don’t have anything to do with safety. And it gets to the core of what’s important to us, consumer choice, and not artificially making consumers pay more, or force consumers to pay more for a worse service than we can provide.” Officials with the PTC were not available for comment Thursday evening.

Besides basic transportation, Uber is testing a few other services.

In Los Angeles, Uber is testing a service called “Uber Fresh,” where it can pick up and deliver lunches. In New York City, Uber is testing a service called “Uber Rush” where drivers can run to a convenience or grocery store to pick up items for customers. And in San Francisco, Uber has enough customers and drivers to test a service called “Uber Pool” if a group of people in one general area are all going to the same destination, they can share the total cost.

“In that case,” Gore said. “Then the price for each person can drop to below even what public transportation costs.”

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