Daily Tech News Show

Your Private Driver: Get me to the airport on time

This is a weekly column that offers news, insights, analysis, and user tips for rideshare platforms like Uber and Lyft. Look for it every Monday after the live show, right here on dailytechnewsshow.com.

Your flight leaves at 5:30 AM tomorrow morning. You’ve enjoyed using Uber to get all over the city for business meetings, romantic dinners, and even to see “Hamilton” at the theater downtown, but this is different. You never really know when that Uber vehicle is going to show up. Sure, things work out in the end, but you can’t afford to be late for your flight. You’re gonna need this Uber to be on their way to you at 3:30, and there’s no guarantee that one will be nearby or even available at this time. If only there was a way for you to make an appointment or something to have a car at your doorstep right at 3:30.

From a passenger perspective, probably the biggest feature on their ride-share wish list is the ability to pre-book a trip. In fact for years there have been a slew of third-party apps like RideSharp that offer to do just that. Recently Uber and Lyft themselves have offered their own pre-booking features, with Lyft testing in San Francisco and Uber rolling out in Seattle. (Uber is also beta testing the feature in all of their California markets with the exception of San Francisco.) Amusingly, the launch blogs for both services also use the early-morning airport traveler scenario. Seems like a dream come true for them, right?

Well, not quite. All that these services, both official and third-party, do is send a request out to the nearest available driver at the time you specify, which can be anywhere from 30 minutes to 30 days in advance. Unfortunately if there isn’t available driver at that time, the request won’t go through. Functionally there is no difference between a scheduled ride and one that’s requested on-demand, making this feature little more than a placebo for anxious early-morning fliers.

What passengers really want is a way to guarantee that a driver will be waiting for them when they need one, especially during odd hours. In most markets this is rarely an actual issue. Savvy drivers know that there’s a demand for early-morning rides to the airport, and they’re awake and ready to cash in on potentially lucrative airport fares. Los Angeles, for example, will have no more than a ten-minute wait just about anywhere in the region at all hours of the day and night. San Bernardino, by contrast, often may have few or no cars free at around 4 AM. Someone looking for a ride-share pickup there may run into some difficulties.

So, why isn’t there a “real” scheduling feature for Uber or Lyft? In my research I was unable to find a real answer beyond CEO Travis Kalanick’s desire to stick to being an on-demand service. There could be a need to keep the company from running into laws regulating taxi services. There could simply be the logistical issues of ensuring driver availability; it’s not like someone from Uber HQ can just call and wake a driver up at 3 AM to take a request because no one else is available. Or it could be that the company is confident enough that they don’t really need to do anything other than say they’re doing something.

For those of you who really need a ride with guaranteed availability though, Uber and Lyft are not the services you want to rely on. Try going old-school with *gasp* a taxicab, or try a private car service that provides airport rides. No, they won’t be as cheap as UberX, but you’re paying for reliability. That’s worth a premium, isn’t it?

Sekani Wright is an experienced Uber driver working in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. If you have any questions you would like answered for this column, you can contact him at djsekani at gmail dot com, or on twitter and reddit at the username djsekani. Have a safe trip!