Austin's ride-hailing services face tough questions from a tech-savvy audience

Five ride-hailing firms operating in Austin participated in a free "Ask me Anything" session at the tech incubator Capital Factory. 

Posted June 16th, 2016

Five representatives from ride-hailing services currently operating in Austin sat shoulder to shoulder on Thursday afternoon inside a stuffed conference room. 

They came to pitch themselves to an important audience: people from the tech industry. 

But the first question showed that this crowd was wary about embracing these new arrivals, many of which had struggled with technical glitches or lack of drivers. 

"What are you going to do when Uber and Lyft come back?" someone asked, and the audience nodded. 

All of the companies present tried to reassure the skeptical audience by saying they were in it for the long haul, regardless of Uber and Lyft's return to Austin. 

"It doesn't change anything for us," said Vlad Christoff, the Chief Operating Officer for Boston-based Fasten. "We've been competing head to head with them in Boston for eight-and-a-half months." 

Ride-hailing juggernauts Uber and Lyft left Austin in May after losing a ballot proposition that would have required them to do fingerprint-based background checks of their drivers, among other regulations. 

They left behind drivers in need of a job or extra income, and passengers who had relied on them to get to work, pick them up from bars after a night out, or take them to the airport. 

But the void has been filled in fairly short order by a half-dozen smaller ride-hailing startups. Get Me was already operating in Austin before Uber and Lyft left. 

RALPH BARRERA/AMERICAN-STATESMANAudience members line the walls in a over-filled conference room to listen to representatives from various ride-hailing groups that gathered at the Capital Factory to pitch their services and take questions from the techie audience.

At Thursday's event was Get Me, Ride Austin, FastenWingz and Arcade City.  Also present was a startup called Luxe Valet, which offers on-demand valet parking. RideAustin launched on Thursday

Absent was Fare, a Phoenix-based company that offers a ride-hailing app that also offers appointments. And not invited to participate was any representative from Austin's taxi industry

After delivering two-minute pitches about their services, and taking questions from the audience, clear differences began to emerge between the different ride-hailing companies. 

For instance, Wingz was the only ride-hailing company at the event that is appointment-based only. 

They started out with a business model focused on taking people to and from the airport, but Heather Forsythe, their vice-president of marketing, said they are expanding to non-airport rides. 

Get Me, Fasten and RideAustin all offered a very similar service - on-demand ride-hailing through location-based apps - but take different approaches to rates. 

For instance, Fasten doesn't charge a percentage to drivers, only a 99-cent fee per ride. They also claim to offer less expensive rates than Uber or Lyft. Get Me and RideAustin said they charge more than Uber or Lyft, but said that also helps drivers make a decent living. 

Ride Austin was the only ride-hailing service that is run as a non-profit. "We're a community asset," said director of community engagement Joe Deshotel. 

He said passengers can round up their fare to the nearest dollar in order to support local charities. And they plan on sharing their data with the city. 

Deshotel said that RideAustin is being funded through donations from tech firms, such as Trilogy. 

RALPH BARRERA/AMERICAN-STATESMANJoe Deshotel, a representative for RideAustin, joins other reps from various ride-hailing groups that gathered at the Capital Factory.

Distinctly different from the other ride-hailing services is Arcade City, which is not approved by the city to operate as a "transportation networking company." The other ride-hailing services are.

"We want to remove the influence of a middle man," David said, explaining that he, like many of the drivers that use his service, used to work for Uber and Lyft and watched his income recede when rates were cut. 

Arcade City functions as a peer-to-peer service on Facebook, connecting passengers with drivers. (This may or may not be legal, depending on what the drivers are charging their passengers.)

Christopher David, the founder of Arcade City, told the American-Statesman after the event ended that they plan to launch an app soon and are exploring whether registering with the city makes sense. 

But the shadow of Uber and Lyft hovered over much of the meeting, with many of the questions and responses mentioning the popular ride-hailing companies that had served Austin for over a year. 

At one point, David, from Arcade City, said he had heard a rumor the other day that Uber and Lyft had struck a deal to come back to Austin in two to three weeks.

One audience member pressed the ride-hailing firms as to whether their drivers had passed fingerprint-based background checks. All except Arcade City indicated that they would be meeting the city's requirements for meeting deadlines on fingerprint-based background checks, or exceeding them. 

And Christoff, from Fasten, had to get in an extra dig at the competitor that wasn't even in the room. 

Not only are their drivers submitting to fingerprint-based background checks, he said, but 1 percent of their drivers who passed an Uber or Lyft background check failed Fasten's checks, he said.