Uber and DC Officials Are Fighting Again

In the latest battle between Uber and District officials, the company says new regulations are blocking it from using Toyota Priuses and other hybrid vehicles for a new mid-range service.

By: Benjamin Freed

Uber, the taxi and sedan smartphone app, is in another squabble with the DC Taxicab Commission, and this time, it's over the company's newest service line, which relies on vehicles that might not meet the specs laid out in the commission's latest set of regulations.

Earlier this month, Uber rolled out UberX, which dispatches mid-size vehicles that aren't as lush or expansive as the Lincoln Town Cars used in its flagship sedan service, but are a bit nicer than an ordinary cab. And for UberX, the San Francisco-based company likes to align with drivers who operate more fuel-efficient models, such as the Toyota Prius and Camry hybrids or Ford Fusion.

And that's where the new Taxicab Commission rules come in. Although it is cheaper than an Uber-dispatched Town Car, UberX is still pricier than a taxi, and thus classified in regulators' eyes as a "sedan" service. The regulations adopted yesterday are the latest batch in the Taxicab Commission's work to define just what constitutes a "sedan."

The regulations approved yesterday dictate that a livery sedan can be an vehicle classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as a "luxury sedan," "upscale sedan," or "sport utility vehicle." While the commission argues these categories include more than 40 hybrid vehicles, the Prius, Camry, and Fusion are not among them.

"These regulations outlaw the use of mid-sized, fuel efficient vehicles from uberX," the company writes in a blog post. And while a search of the EPA's fuel efficiency ratings for the aforementioned vehicle types does bring back nearly 40 cars, the list is full of Lexuses, Audis, Mercedes-Benzes, and other rides that don't seem to fit the description of a mid-priced livery service. While Uber does not own any cars directly, it affiliates itself with cabbies who own and operate their own vehicles. The cheapest 2013 model in the EPA search results is the Acura ILX, which has a base sticker price of $28,900.

"[The commission] passed a set of regulations that would basically ban all non-ultra-luxury cars from being sedans," Rachel Holt, Uber's general manager in DC, says in a phone interview. "We disagree with this kind of way of thinking and know it's going to limit affordable options to people in D.C."

The DC Taxicab Commission argues much the same in its report attached to the regulations. "The result is that passengers will be left with higher-priced services," the report reads. "Visitors without smartphones could not use a street hail to obtain service and residents who do not use or cannot afford smartphones—including those in under-served areas of the city and the elderly—would be left with nothing."

But Uber isn't the only party claiming that in limiting the range of vehicles that can be used as sedans, the commission is curbing consumer options. In a letter shortly after a draft of the regulations was released in June, the Federal Trade Commission urged the DC Taxicab Commission to be more flexible. "The use of fuel efficient vehicles may be an important component of consumer demand for sedan services and the proposed rule would impede sedan operators from competing with regard to this feature," the FTC's comment read.

DC Council member Mary Cheh, who leads the committee that oversees the DC Taxicab Commission, concurred in her own letter to the agency's chairman, Ron Linton. "With sedan-class vehicles, because those vehicles are booked exclusively through a smart phone application the customer can and should have the ability to shop around for the price, type, and quality of vehicle that suits his or her needs," she wrote.

But the commission defends its move to limit the kinds of cars that cans serve as sedans, saying that it would be unfair for a model that can be operated as a regulated taxi—a Prius, for example—to also run as an unregulated sedan.

"There are a number of vehicles that meet size requirements that are less than a full-sized sedan that fit into this middle tier," commission spokesman Neville Waters says. "The rub comes down that you've got vehicles that are regulated—taxis. But if those vehicles are used as unregulated vehicles without a meter, you are creating an unfair advantage in the marketplace."

For now, though, UberX is rolling around DC, and to great success, in the company's estimation. "We've seen a ton of demand," Holt says. "It proves consumers want these midsize, more affordable options in DC."

But Holt adds that the DC Taxicab Commission's position seems to run counter to its mission. "Their goal is to protect consumer and driver safety," she says. "I can't even compute."