Uber, the car service for techies, launches in MSP

Uber recruited Kevin Love to be the service's first rider in Minneapolis.
Uber recruited Kevin Love to be the service's first rider in Minneapolis.
courtesy Uber

Halloween revelers hunting for cabs this weekend had a new transportation option: Uber.

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Tech types might have been seen grabbing their smart phones mid-conversation, and with a tap on an app screen, calling a car to bring their friends to the next bar.

If they're the kind to really devour the party line, they might even have started using the brand as a part of speech: "I'll call an Uber," "I'm going to Uber home." Sound extreme? Think of "to tweet."

The Twitter comparison doesn't stop with the lingo. Uber's a young company with similarly big ambitions, and similar reliance on the latest technology.

It launched in San Francisco in 2010, and has since picked up nearly $50 million in funding and spread to a dozen cities in the U.S., plus Toronto, Vancouver, Paris and London. It's currently expanding into five more.

This past Thursday, October 25, it hit Minneapolis-St. Paul, after first testing the waters with a soft launch at the start of October.

"We want to be anywhere with an airport," says Austin Geidt, the company's launch manager. "Minneapolis is one of our last prime markets in terms of sheer size, and there are gaps in transportation here. Minneapolis is not a cab town, so everyone has to drive."

Uber wants to change that. The service works via apps for iPhone or Android, and those phones' built-in GPS. Users open the app, which tells them where the closest driver is. (In some cities, at this stage, they choose between taxi, luxury "black" car, or SUV. So far in Minneapolis-St. Paul, luxury car is the only menu choice).

With a screen tap, users then request a car. Drivers get a ping on their own company-provided phones, and users get a text or call when they've arrived. Once they're moving, the same smart phone GPS tracks the time and distance of the trip and calculates the amount due accordingly. The app sends a bill -- tip included -- straight to the user's stored credit card, no cash or wallet-fumbling required.  

After the ride, users can rate drivers, and as a caution against belligerent drunk types, users get scores too. The company aims for fees about 30 percent higher than normal cabs, and response times of ten minutes (in its best-established market, San Francisco, it boasts three minutes).

Uber's not actually running itself as a cab company, just a contractor -- an important distinction during regulatory clashes it has faced in cities like Chicago and Washington D.C. Drivers provide their own cars (though the company inspects them), and often see Uber as a supplement to their other driving jobs. In some cities, drivers have used the service to become entrepreneurs, running fleets of Uber drivers.

Minneapolis's Uber isn't at that point yet, but is already making a splash: It provided a ride for a zombie bride and groom at the zombie pub crawl, and recruited Timberwolves star Kevin Love as its first rider.

Akash Shah, who's heading the company's MSP roll-out, says early adopters racked up "hundreds" of trips during the soft-launch weeks, and that the service had "1,000 people signed up before we got here."

"We're a complement to what's available," says Shah. "When there's a 45 minute wait for a cab on a cold Friday night, we'll be there."

Uber, the car service for techies, launches in MSP
courtesy Uber

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