Boston’s Uber Ruling a Triumph of the Future Over the Past

I wish I could say I was surprised that Uber was banned for a while in here in Massachusetts.

If you don't know about Uber, you should. It's the town car service for the smartphone generation, up and running now in several cities around the country. You use the Uber app on your phone to locate the nearest participating car and have it start driving to where you are. The car is not a taxi, but instead a 'sleek black car.' When it gets there, you tell the driver where you want to go. When you get there, you get out and walk away, no cash or credit card required. Your Uber account contains credit card information; once you leave the car the company calculates your fare, usually based on distance traveled, charges your card, divides money between Uber and the car, and emails you a receipt.

I've used it in San Francisco and Boston after hearing about it from Marissa Mayer, and love it. It's worked for me exactly as advertised. It's more expensive than a cab, but worth it; I find Boston taxis to be a hot, dirty, mess. The only problem with Uber is apparently too much demand, since the nearest car to me is often very far away.

Of course cab drivers and companies don't like it when Uber comes to their city; businesses don't like competition. And of course they'll try lots of things to undermine the new entrants, like issuing dire warnings about consumer safety and trying to get regulators on their side.

My friend the tech guru Tim O'Reilly has a great way to phrase the choice facing regulators, bureaucrats, and other policy makers in this situation: they can protect the future from the past, or protect the past from the future. As someone who likes innovation and progress, I usually advocate the former path, which in this case would mean simply letting Uber operate (after all, it only works with licensed, professional town car drivers). Incumbents almost always favor the latter.

Sadly, regulators often do, too, and seem predisposed to favor the past over the future. There are several possible reasons for this. One is that they're too close to the incumbents, and so inclined to share their views about competition. Another is that regulators, like other workers, like to justify their existences by being and appearing busy. And the way regulators do this is by, well, regulating stuff. A final possible reason is simply that power corrupts, and regulators get fond of throwing their weight around (my worst encounters with TSA agents at airports provide some support for this view).

Whatever the reason(s), the Massachusetts Division of Standards sent Uber a cease-and-desist letter after considering the evidence and holding at least one hearing. Their reason? Uber uses GPS technology to calculate fares, and "there are no established measurement standards for its current application and use in determining transportation costs similar to that of approved measurement systems for taximeters and odometers."

Now, I've hopped in Boston Coach town cars a few times (when someone else is paying), and the Mass. DOS is nowhere to be seen in them. Boston Coach rides are often charged based on time, but I don't see that the clock in the car has been verified and approved by a Sealer of Weights and Measures (actual job title). So it's not at all clear to me why the Sealers and their colleagues felt entitled to intervene because of the way the Uber town car service charges its customers.

Fortunately for me and the other Massachusetts Uber users, the hue and cry over the cease-and-desist motivated the Governor's office to weigh in with a pro-Uber tweet on August 15. The same day, the DOS overturned its previous decision. Governor Deval Patrick then tweeted that the problem was solved.

I'm a member of Gov. Patrick's Council on Innovation, and might have had to resign my position if this ridiculous ruling had been allowed to stand. Instead, maybe I'll celebrate this small victory of the future over the past by summoning an Uber car to take me to the Council's next meeting.

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