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 six-year-old Kia, the same car the driver just took to the grocery store, or, for all you know, the 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.
New idea for new generation
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, who, as Uber advertises, work only when they want to (lest Uber have to pay them salaries, benefits and all that yucky old-fashioned stuff) and supposedly 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 cell phone 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, 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.
But at least cabbies used to get their information through a radio dispatch. Uber drivers are like musical chairs — closest one wins. And their customers come through cell phones. When your business depends on how quickly you read an app while behind the wheel, I get nervous.
Amateurs becoming specialists
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. And Uber drivers complain there are too many of them now to make the promised money.
I understand why traditional taxi companies don’t like Uber. They’re muscling in on their monopoly. A Detroit taxi official recently likened Uber to Kwame Kilpatrick and RICO operations.
But Uber wouldn’t be valued at more than $40 billion if we were thrilled with the system we had. The truth is, you don’t really know your taxi driver, either. They are often rude, disinterested — and their fares are sometimes shocking, which is where Uber’s lower fares get traction.
Maybe you trust Uber, maybe you don’t. To me, this is about a larger notion, that everybody is a specialist as soon as they start doing something. 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.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).