Thursday

November 23rd, 2017

Society

It's a bird, a plane, it's an Uber man

Mitch Albom

By Mitch Albom

Published July 28, 2015

 It's a bird, a plane, it's an Uber man

I am from the generation whose mothers preached, "Don't ever get in a car with a stranger!" So right from the start, Uber had me nervous.

Let's see. You download an app onto your phone. You type in where you are. A driver you never met before suddenly appears, knows your name and has a loose connection to your credit card. The vehicle may be a Lincoln, an SUV or a 6-year-old Kia, the same car the driver just took to the grocery store, or, for all you know, a drug pickup.

You get in.

Well, YOU get in. I am standing on the sidewalk, still trying to get the iPhone turned on. Uber, based in California, is a techie-first phenomenon, belonging to the generation that believes nothing bad could happen from sharing every piece of personal information with the entire universe.

My generation is more afraid. Actually terrified. And, perhaps, in the end, more practical.

We are also dinosaurs.

So while young people gleefully hail Uber cars on their way out of bars, and cities everywhere argue over whether Uber unfairly competes, avoids taxes or influences legislation, baby boomers are still mumbling, "Wait, you just get IN the car? And the driver could be ANYONE?"

Well, sort of. To be an Uber driver, you do have to sign up. And, according to Uber, you undergo some sort of background check, although the depth of that check seems in question.

The drivers, as Uber advertises, work only when they want to (lest Uber must pay salaries, benefits and all that yucky old-fashioned stuff) and, supposedly, they have to pass a driving test. But you don't have to look far (like a Forbes magazine article) to read stories of applicants who were given an Uber cellphone with no driving training and told to get out there and start making money.

So, dinosaurs like me (you know, anyone over 26) wonder how this is much different than trusting your life to the car that just pulled up when you had a flat tire. After all, Uber bills itself as "the world's safest, most reliable ride," but that's pretty hard to believe when someone like me could be driving for them in a matter of days.

Just ask my family. They see me pull up and they turn the other way and stick out their thumbs.

But then we are a generation that likes its cabs yellow and its hands free. I guess it's archaic to believe that uniform cars, a state or city licensed organization, regulation and full-time drivers make for a more reliable transportation system. Maybe we're too nostalgic. Or old enough to remember when starting a company that sounds like a German war cry was considered risky.

But at least cabbies used to get their information through a radio dispatch. Uber drivers are like musical chairs -- closest one wins. When your business depends on how quickly you read a cellphone app while behind the wheel, I get nervous.

This is not to say Uber is a bad idea. It isn't. But like most tech-based ideas, it turns muddy when human beings get involved. There have already been several alleged assaults between Uber drivers and passengers.

Now I understand why traditional taxi companies don't like Uber. They're muscling in on their monopoly. A Detroit taxi official recently likened them to Kwame Kilpatrick and RICO operations.

But Uber wouldn't be valued at more than $40 billion if everyone was thrilled with the system we had. The truth is, you don't really know your taxi driver, either. They are often rude, disinterested and English-challenged -- and their fares are sometimes shocking, which is where Uber's lower fares get traction.

So maybe you trust them, maybe you don't. To me, this is about getting used to a larger notion, that everybody is a specialist as soon as they start doing it. You blog, you're a journalist. You sell an eBay item, you're a retailer. It's an egalitarian approach to life, we can all do anything, have anything, share everything, someone else's music, someone else's movie, someone else's car.

Or someone else's room. Just as I am beginning to understand Uber, my nieces and nephews inform me of Airbnb, which allows strangers to book space from hosts around the world -- and by "space " it could mean a bed in an apartment.

"Wait," I say. "You just supply your credit card, crash in someone's home and you don't even KNOW this person?"

"Sure," the kids say. "What could happen?"

And I shake my head and return to my planet, waiting for yellow cars with black checkers to take me to places named Marriott or Hilton. I know. A dinosaur. But look at how long they lived.



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