MANATEE -- Stealth taxi service Uber Technologies is putting feelers out to see if anyone in Bradenton and Sarasota needs a job. And maybe soon for the rest of the area, to see if anyone needs a ride.
The company has advertised on Facebook for drivers in both cities to start up its UberX service here, which uses standard four-door cars. The company and local agencies regulating taxis and for-hire services are taking a wait-and-see approach to what happened.
The Internet only alternative taxi system uses a smartphone app to allow people find a driver, find the fare they want and schedule a pick-up. Ads from the San Francisco-based company show drivers in Sarasota and Bradenton can make up to $20 an hour, $550 in a weekend and up to $50,000
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A spokeswoman for Uber told the Bradenton Herald test ads are the first steps in seeing if the service could come here.
"We have no magic number for riders or drivers in a city -- in fact, we find that there is overwhelming demand for Uber in small cities like Fayetteville, N.C., to major cities like Paris," said Uber's Kaitlin Durkosh. "Our success in over 160 cities around the world proves that Uber works, and we aspire to be in all cities across the world where transportation options fall short."
Drivers must be at least 21 years old, have a driver's license, personal auto insurance and a full-size, four-door car in excellent condition from 2004 or later, Durkosh said.
The company started off challenging the difference between a taxi, car pooling and ride sharing -- like giving your friend a few bucks for a ride into town.
But after regulators saw how organized car pool and ride sharing became, they questioned whether services such as Uber and Lyft are unregulated taxis or an app for a nomad.
This month in San Fransisco, Uber launched a more defined carpool service called UberPool, in which riders can find people going to similar destinations and split the fare.
The Florida Taxicab Association rallied against Uber earlier this year as it entered Tampa's market and pushed legislation in the Florida Legislature. Association officials said they wanted a fair playing field. Members know it's a complicated battle.
"Bottom line is Uber and Lyft are not going to be regulated out of existence," said Roger Chapin, an executive with Mears Transportation in Orlando and a Florida Taxicab Association board member. "Taxicab companies are going to have to find a way to compete. Regulators, whether they be state or local policymakers, are going to eventually set some standards. The hype around the service will take a backseat to health, safety and access to all. But that's probably two years down the road."
If Uber comes to Bradenton and Sarasota, it will be a matter of whether the service and its drivers will comply with local regulations, according to local government officials.
Uber finds itself battling regulations in each jurisdiction it enters, whether it's the concerns of a large metropolitan town or an entire state.
"We find that when we enter a city, existing regulations don't always account for modern, innovative solutions like Uber. At times, cities try to fit Uber into existing, antiquated transportation regulations, but as a technology company, this is like fitting a square peg into a round hole," Durkosh said. "We've been working with city officials across the state to modernize regulations and to find a permanent home for Uber in Florida."
Two bills in the Florida Legislature aimed at preventing municipalities from regulating Uber, including sidestepping minimum fare requirements in some locations such as Jacksonville, failed in the spring. That has resulted in a town-by-town approach in Florida.
"What's going to happen is Uber and Lyft are going to ignore any compromise, any change in regulation unless it comes to almost 100 percent to what they want and how they operate," Chapin said.
Enforcement for taxis and vehicles for hire varies widely across the country. Some cities have special bodies such as the Nevada Taxicab Authority in Las Vegas, which devotes officers to watch over cabs. Hillsborough County has the Public Transportation Commission to deal with for-hire cars.
In Maryland, Uber claimed it is a technology company connecting people with travel requests, similar to Orbitz, so it should be regulated under telecommunications laws. But the state's Public Service Commission decided Aug. 6 that two of Uber's services, UberBLACK, using chauffeured town cars, and UberSUV, are "common carries," or for-hire/taxi services and would be regulated as such.
In Manatee and Sarasota counties, regulation is less sophisticated than in Tampa and Las Vegas, but some rules do exist.
"Most vehicle-for-hire regulations are local, so this has not necessarily has been a statewide issue, though Uber tried to usurp home rule," Chapin said.
Unincorporated Manatee County doesn't have stipulations on how taxi services operate, said Nicholas Azzara, information outreach manager for Manatee County government.
Bradenton has a thorough permitting and inspection program that includes background checks, fingerprinting, business tax license, a vehicle inspection and a vote before the City Council.
The city only has seven permitted taxi companies, said William Ackles, business tax clerk for Bradenton. However, he knows many more are operating.
"There's a tremendous amount of them that effectively ignore us," Ackles said.
A city ordinance says a company has to be permitted to pick up fares, he said. There's no way to know if the cab or for-hire vehicle is picking up a passenger within the city unless an officer witnesses it or performs a sting, he said.
In Sarasota, taxi permits are also required if fares originate in city limits, said Mark Lyons, manager for Sarasota's Parking Operations Division.
"I haven't personally used Uber, but I have seen videos," Lyons said. "I share the sentiment and concern about potential liability and standards for customer service."
Yet, who's to say Uber can't have drivers follow the law in each town, Lyons added.
Hillsborough County Transportation Commission officers fined Uber and Lyft drivers $800 in May, saying drivers didn't meet background check qualifications.
Last week, Salt Lake City operated an undercover sting and fined drivers $6,500 a pop for not having a ground transportation licenses.
Locally, Sarasota places fare minimums on taxi cabs, but for-hire cars do not have any restrictions, potentially creating competition.
The real battle locally might be at the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport. SRQ has its own ground transportation permits for taxis and for-hire vehicles, but the airport's entrance and travel lanes are also in Sarasota city limits, which has its own taxi regulations. Lyons said airport measures conform with city regulations.
SRQ permits don't require a vehicle inspection. There are requirements on insurance minimums, the company name be displayed on the car, which must be less than 11 years old, said Frederick "Rick" Piccolo, chief executive officer and president of the airport. The airport also must be named in the insurance.
"We do a lot of regulatory things to protect passengers and the public, especially people who have never been in the area before," he said.
Uber's issues are probably going to be handled nationwide or statewide, Piccolo said. He doesn't foresee Uber being an issue if it follows the rules.
"I think it could create issues if someone is an Uber driver and we don't know. If they are coming to pick someone up regularly and they don't have a permit, we wouldn't allow it," he said.
The taxi drivers would police the area, and would probably complain to the airport because of the competition, he added.
The airport website tells passengers they can use a car service other than Diplomat, but must call ahead to arrange for pick-up so they're not at the taxi stand.
Two Diplomat drivers waiting for passengers at SRQ didn't appear too concerned about Uber.
Angel Rodriguez said Sarasota's population is too old for the app to become popular.
"This is an old city. Mostly, the people here wouldn't use it or have knowledge of it except for the young crowd of Sarasota," Rodriguez said. "Most of our fares here, they come straight from the airport. Maybe it could work in the downtown area, but I don't think it'll affect us."
Chapin said more operators, including his, are pushing for their own apps and letting customers know they can pay in other ways.
"Those operators who know Uber and Lyft are here to stay and have forward thinking are all improving their app operations and moving toward having credit cards on file," he said.
Another driver, Louis Bellevue, also has a special license to go to Tampa International Airport. He hasn't seen any issues and wasn't familiar with Uber and Lyft.
"If you're doing it for business, you need to have proper insurance, a sticker and everything," he said.
Chapin was surprised some drivers are not concerned because airports are a premium place for drivers to pick up fares.
"If someone walks out from baggage claim, hits his Uber app and Bill with his Camry picks them up and doesn't pay the airport access fee, they're going to get very concerned when that occurs," Chapin said. "They're going to see it as unfair, because if I did it, it would be a violation or a notice to appear."
Insurance is a sticking point. The state requires self-employed drivers to carry $125,000 for bodily injury liability per person, $250,000 per occurrence and $50,000 for property damage liability.
Uber created its own ridesharing commercial insurance coverage that provides increased coverage when the vehicle has paying passengers. The policy has $1 million in liability coverage per incident, $1 million of uninsured/underinsured motorist bodily injury coverage per incident, $50,000 of comprehensive and collision insurance and personal injury protection insurance.
A supplemental policy also covers the driver between trips in case the primary insurer doesn't cover all or any costs, and is provided to all drivers, according to Uber's blog.
However, a driver's personal insurance carrier could cancel their insurance if they get into an accident and find out the driver was using the car for commercial use even if a passenger isn't in it, Chapin said.
The company also performs background checks, which are required and completed by Bradenton, Sarasota and SRQ airport.
"Safety is our number one priority. All ridesharing partners must pass a stringent background check that screens county, federal and multi-state records, along with the national sex offender registry and motor vehicle records," Durkosh said. "Going back seven years, drivers must have no DUI or other drug related driving violations or severe infractions; no hit and runs; no fatal accidents; no history of reckless driving; no violent crimes; no sexual offenses; no gun related violations; no resisting/evading arrest; and no driving without insurance or suspended license charge in the past three years."
That doesn't mean the service is incident free.
Last month District of Columbia police filed sexual assault charges again an Uber driver after a woman said the driver touched her while she slept in the car. Uber told a Washington-area radio station it would assist in the investigation.
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.