L.A. taxi firm adopts ‘e-hail’ app to counter ride-share startups
Fighting back against the growing popularity of smartphone-based ride-sharing services, one traditional taxi company in Los Angeles has rolled out an app that makes it easy to summon and pay for a ride.
The app, developed by Flywheel Software Inc., a San Francisco startup, has enabled about 300 of the region’s 2,300 official taxis to pick up passengers who request a taxi ride using an Android or Apple mobile device.
“We work with legal, safe and reliable taxi fleets,” Flywheel Chief Executive Steve Humphreys said. “That’s our claim to fame.”
The Los Angeles taxi industry has labeled ride-sharing apps such Lyft and Uber as “bandit” cabs. Those services let individuals act like cab drivers without the same licensing requirements faced by traditional operators. Flywheel now gives the old-school taxis a tool to appear just as hip as the high-tech pick-up companies.
Flywheel is partnering with Bell Cab Co. Inc., which has about 500 drivers and operates in the cities of Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, Torrance, Redondo Beach, Lawndale, Hawthorne, El Segundo, Palos Verdes, Lomita and Rolling Hills.
Humphreys says most users should a have a cab at their doorstep within five to seven minutes. Other companies such as Hailo, Verifone and iTaxi provided similar services, but Flywheel appears to be the first company to launch in Los Angeles at this scale.
“There’s not as much of a cab culture in Los Angeles,” Humphreys said. “We think there’s an opportunity to get more people to ride them by being able to just load an app to find them.”
After downloading the app from the Apple or Google Play stores, a user signs up and gives their email, name and phone number to create an account. First time users can use the promo code FLYLA10 for $10 in credit.
Once logged on, users can turn on Wi-Fi or GPS to let the app determine their location. That loads a map that lists places such as restaurants and hotels and displays icons denoting the location of the cabs. The listing is provided by the location-sharing service Foursquare. If the automated locator is incorrect, users can manually move a red pin to the correct address for their waiting location.
The user clicks on the correct address, chooses a payment method and can leave a note for the driver with any special instructions. The payment method must be a credit card, and a user can add as many credit cards as they wish. To save time entering 16 digits, the app can take a picture of the credit card. Just match up the edges of the card to the green lines in the “scan card” feature.
Once everything is set, the user clicks “Request Taxi.” That sends a message to the closest Bell Cab taxi that is outfitted with an HTC Evo smartphone with Flywheel. The driver can accept or deny the request. If it’s denied, it goes to the next closest driver. Once accepted, the user can track the taxi on the map and get a constant update on the estimated time of arrival.
The driver can call the rider when he or she has arrived. The user is told the cab number to look for, and the driver is instructed to ask for the person’s name to make sure they match up. At night in crowded places, there’s a feature in the Flywheel that turns a user’s smartphone camera light into a flashing beacon to help drivers spot the correct rider.
At the end of the ride, the driver enters the fare into the app on the HTC device. Flywheel adds a $1 service fee to the fare. The tip can be preset, but changed later.
The service can be used without having to sign anything. The app will display the final fare and a receipt will be automatically emailed. Stripe is used to process the payment. If the charges ever appear incorrect, Humphreys said users can contact Flywheel and have the charge immediately reversed while the issue is investigated.
About 300 drivers have been trained to use the app, and Humphreys said 100 more should be ready to go by the end of next week. With each cab picking up about 20 riders per day, he said there’s significant capacity.
Flywheel said it chose to partner with Bell Cab because it had the highest customer satisfaction ratings in the area. More taxi providers will be added as demand arises. In San Francisco, for example, Flywheel has quickly expanded from 160 cabs to 900 of the 1,490 cabs in the city.
Each driver has their own PIN to log into the app. That allows riders to rate each individual driver. About 95% of the ratings in other cities have been either four or five stars. Payments to drivers are made via direct deposit within 12 to 24 hours.
Humphreys said coming to Los Angeles gives Flywheel a chance to expose the service to a less tech-savvy community and the increasingly growing Latino market.
“L.A. is going to be one of those surprises,” he said.
While local regulators have cracked down on startups such as Lyft and Uber, discussions at the state-level could lead to rules specifically for those kinds of ride-sharing companies.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti recently said he looked forward to bringing similar innovation to traditional cabs. Humphreys said he met with Garcetti two weeks ago and that the mayor downloaded the app.
“The L.A. Department of Transportation has been very supportive and the mayor loves new technology,” Humphreys said. The department declined comment and said it has no involvement.
A Bell Cab representative was not available to comment.
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