What price for a safe ride?

March 1, 2012

Last Sunday, I left the still-humming-about-the-Oscars newsroom around 1 a.m. to find myself alone in the dark canyons of K Street. No people. No cabs.

It wasn’t the savviest city move I’ve ever made. As I walked up and down the lonely streets for the next 10 minutes, jumping at my own shadow, I berated myself for not taking my friend’s advice to, in her words, “uber” home.

The mobile-app car company Uber has been around for just more than two years and is finally reaching verbification status (verbification: (n) when a technology name transforms into an action, as in, “Google verbification”).

Based in cities across the United States, and soon to be abroad, Uber allows people to check in on a cellphone app, locate nearby luxury cars and order one for a quick ride. It has quickly become a favorite transportation mode for young urbanites — often faster than hailing a cab, offering a more upscale ride and payable by the credit card information stored in the app.

Users download the free app on their phones, and when they need a ride, they hit the button and, a few minutes later, a car will pull up at their location. There’s a minimum $15 charge, and the price depends on distance plus time (so traffic jams will add to the cost). There have been reports of some app glitches, catching users signed out and car-less. But for the most part, ratings are exuberantly positive.


Uber is a boon for luxury car drivers looking to pick up extra rides between calls from regular customers. Uber does not own any cars; car companies sign a contract with the San Francisco-based tech start-up. One group is not happy with the company: D.C. taxicabs, saying the company operates outside legal guidelines. The Washington Post has written about the regulatory no man’s land the company exists in.

Gray area or not, the company has tapped into the growing trend of connecting us through smartphone technology to a service nearby. A recent study by the Pew Research Center reports that 28 percent of adults use location-based services, and the number is almost double for smartphone users. More technology companies are pushing users to add geo-location to their services, but the question lingers: Does it really improve or does it invade our lives?

Giving your location to technological servers is easily understood. Standing in the middle of an unknown city, it seems something of a small miracle to pull up Google Maps, press the arrow button and see that pale blue dot, which represents you center on a map.

But always having some satellite in the sky able to tilt and twist to locate you on any spot on Earth is disconcerting, particularly to privacy advocates. There are articles debating whether geotagging photographs uploaded to Flickr endangers children by making their location known to possible predators; reports on thieves who can find empty houses, thanks to Foursquare check-ins; and one recently shuttered site named I Can Stalk U that used TwitPic to pinpoint your location.

But there is no overwhelming evidence that offering intimate knowledge to technology companies winds up imperiling users. There’s only a whiff of possible danger. As with so much of our delicate dance with technology, the ease of these products continues to allow for small compromises. We hardly notice how much personal information we trade until we’re already far down the road.

That road seems a lot safer though than a lonely street corner in the middle of the night. Giving my location to a car company able to swoop in and drive me home safely seems a pretty small fare to pay.

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