Uber is already reshaping the way people get around cities. It is lately hoping to change suburban commutes, too—if, of course, regulators would step out of the way.
On stage at the TED conference this week, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick described the growth of both Uber’s urban carpooling service, UberPool, and its relatively new car-sharing feature, UberCommute, which is aimed more at suburban commuters.
Both, he says, will help reduce car ownership and road congestion long before self-driving cars become a reality: "We can turn every car into a shared car, and we can reclaim our cities—starting today."
UberPool allows its drivers to pick up multiple passengers who are going in the same direction. In Los Angeles, where UberPool rolled out eight months ago, Kalanick said that the company has saved 7.9 million miles of car trips and 1,400 metric tons of CO2 out of the air. Today in the city, he said, 100,000 new people are carpooling every week. In China, UberPool is serving 15 million rides per month or 500,000 per day. "We’re seeing that exponential growth is happening—in fact, we’re seeing it in LA, too."
In September, Uber launched its new commute feature in Chengdu, China—the first time it launched a major new feature outside of the United States. It allows commuters who own a car to pick up passengers on the way to work. Drivers just log into the app and input their destination, and the app lets them know who they can pick up, and how much they'll make for letting them hop in.
To bring the service to the United States will be harder. "We’ll match you up with one of your neighbors on your way to work, and it's a really great thing. There’s just one hitch—it’s called regulation," he says. In the U.S., the problem, he claims, is that anyone, anywhere can charge passengers less than 54 cents a mile for a ride—the government's official "cost" of owning a car. "But if you want to charge 60 cents a mile, you’re a criminal."
This is just the latest in a series of regulations that Kalanick has found at odds with his business ideas. Uber is currently embroiled in battles with courts and regulators in cities across the U.S. and the world, on issues including driver background checks, drivers' low wages, and drivers' employment status (Uber says they're independent contractors, not employees, and thus exempt from those pesky regulations regarding how you have to care for your employees). When I open the Uber app in British Columbia, where the TED conference is held, Uber informs me its service isn't available and instead directs me to a petition to the provincial government—it is battling the government here.
Kalanick's ambitions for carpooling suggest further clashes. "What if for 60 cents a mile, we can get half a million more people [carpooling] in Los Angeles, and that if for 60 cents a mile, we can get 50 million people carpooling in the United States? If we could, it's obviously something we should do."