With a simple tweet, Oklahoma City Thunder basketball player Nick Collison has ignited an uproar among Oklahoma limo and cab companies and sent governmental regulators scrambling.
The furor is over Uber — a smartphone app-based ride-for-hire program that Collison tweeted he likes, but which has local limousine and cab company operators steaming.
Collison's tweet announced Uber's unofficial arrival in Oklahoma City two weeks ago. The company's official local launch was Wednesday.
Uber recruits local drivers willing to use their vehicles to provide ride-for-hire services to customers who summon and pay for rides through the smartphone app. Company officials say they take “numerous steps” to protect customers, including background checks for drivers.
Still, the outcry from competing cab and limo companies has been huge.
Charles Cotton, owner of V.I.P. Limousine Co. and president of the Oklahoma Limousine Association, faxed a consumer complaint to Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt accusing Uber Technologies and its corporate investors of conspiring to operate an unlicensed ride-for-hire service in Oklahoma.
“There is no Oklahoma Corporation Commission licensing, which is required to operate any vehicle for hire on the streets and highways of Oklahoma,” Cotton complained. “These state providers have no license, improper insurance, no training, no drug testing of drivers, thus putting the public in harm's way.”
Joey Allen, the Oklahoma City general manager of a limousine service called Kings Worldwide Transportation, joined with Cotton in complaining to the Oklahoma City Traffic Commission last week.
“They're operating with an unlicensed car, with an unlicensed vehicle,” Allen told commissioners. “My 79-year-old mom and her 10-year-old Town Car could sign up for UberX this afternoon, and tomorrow she could be driving Kevin Durant.”
Allen told The Oklahoman that ride-for-hire companies are regulated for the protection of the public. To become licensed, rigorous vehicle inspections are required, proper insurance must be verified, and drivers must undergo background checks, driving record checks, drug and alcohol testing, and physicals, he said.
Allen said Uber and a similar company called Lyft have not gone through the necessary steps to become licensed in Oklahoma City.
Whether or not Uber and companies like it are actually required to be licensed could turn out to be a complex legal question.
In the Uber app's service agreement with customers, the company contends it is a technology company with an app and not a transportation service.
“For the avoidance of doubt: Uber itself does not provide transportation services and Uber is not a transportation carrier,” the company states in the service agreement.
Uber contends it only acts as an intermediary to link customers with transportation providers, even though Uber collects credit card information from customers that is kept on file and used to pay for rides.
Nairi Hourdajian, a spokeswoman for Uber, contends the company takes numerous steps to protect customers.
“We're partnering with drivers like you and me who will be driving their own cars,” she said. “All drivers pass Uber's rigorous screening process (but are not licensed as professional chauffeurs).”
She said Uber's screening process includes a stringent background check, driving history check, in-person interview and screening, a city knowledge exam and ongoing quality controls.
She also said Uber maintains insurance to protect customers beyond the insurance obtained by individual drivers, who are not considered to be Uber employees.
Capt. Dexter Nelson, spokesman for the Oklahoma City Police Department, said local city officials are expected to meet soon to decide what to do about Uber.
“We're trying to determine if they are operating lawfully,” Nelson said. “They think they are. We don't think they are.”
The transportation division of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which regulates transportation services not regulated by city ordinances, “is currently investigating the service offered by Uber as regards Oklahoma law,” said Matt Skinner, spokesman for the commission.
“It is important that Oklahomans who hire a passenger service such as a limousine be sure the entity is operating legally and has the insurance needed to protect the passengers,” Skinner said. A list of passenger carriers who have commission authority and the insurance requirements can be found at www.occeweb.com/tr/TRLists.htm.
While regulators contemplate what to do about Uber, many customers have embraced the service which is active in several American cities.
“I am a huge fan,” said Brett Robinson, a local attorney and lobbyist who says he has used Uber transportation in Chicago, Dallas and Washington, D.C.
“I don't know if they're operating legally here or not,” Robinson said.
Robinson, who described the service as “easy to use” and “consumer friendly,” said his advice to regulators would be to change the regulations if Uber is out of compliance.
Lawsuits and regulatory battles are prevalent in many cities where Uber has been operating.
A huge battle has been going on in Dallas, where the interim city manager recently apologized for his role in a precipitating a crackdown on Uber in which undercover police officers targeted Uber drivers and issued about 60 citations. City prosecutors later dropped the charges.
The interim city manager and other city staffers were criticized for not seeking advice from the city council and for directing city attorneys to draft proposed ordinances aimed at regulating Uber that were similar to ordinances that had been drafted by a cab company attorney, according to Dallasnews.com.