Between fines from the state PUC and class-action lawsuits by taxi drivers, several of the ride-sharing services we’ve covered here – Lyft, Uber and SideCar – have been under fire lately.
On the surface it appears to be a classic case of technology startups disrupting an industry that has failed to innovate, of using smartphone apps to find rides almost instantly vs. waiting on the street corner wondering whether the cab you ordered the old-fashioned way will actually show up.
Well, Flywheel (formerly Cabulous) is a San Francisco company with a different solution. Since 2009 it has been building digital dispatch apps and forming relationships with the taxi companies to help bring the industry into the 21st century.
Over the holidays, it quietly started to integrate the first of 140 cabs from DeSoto Cab Co., which means that by the end of January or so, Flywheel will be “north of 600 cabs in San Francisco,” says CEO Steve Humphreys. “With others we are integrating into our system, we soon will be in half of the taxis in this city.”
With DeSoto, Flywheel now has its apps inside twelve of the eighteen taxi fleets in the city, and it is helping reduce the typical 50 percent unoccupied rate with its more efficient digital dispatch system.
That means Flywheel is taking a fundamentally different approach from Uber, which has some taxi drivers among the town car drivers you can access with its app; and from Lyft and SideCar, which are p2p ride-sharing services that connect people needing rides with people willing to give rides.
Flywheel installs a dedicated android device in the taxi fleets it works with and maintains a digital dispatch system that requires no phone calls or human dispatchers.
Its consumer app, which is free, is simple to use. When you open the app, you see icons of the free cabs all over the city.
“Two touches to your screen and you get a cab on the way,” says Humphreys. “All the other cabs disappear from your screen as you see your own driver approaching. Once he’s outside the driver texts you. You can pay with a pre-enrolled credit card in the app. The fare is the standard taxi fare. There are no add-on fees.”
Flywheel charges the fleets a monthly subscription fee plus $0.60 per ride.
“These are good people running these fleets; they know all the important data,” says Humphreys. “The taxi industry is ready to change if you give them the tools. They see what is happening around them with how people use technology and so on.
"If we can enlarge the base of taxi riders and get utilization from 50 percent of the cabs up to 75 percent--how huge would that be! We are not disrupting the taxi business but we are a catalyst for needed change.”
From its base in San Francisco, Flywheel is currently working in about 2000 cabs in 12 cities to provide 140,000 rides per month.