The pseudo-German name Uber isn't helping in Europe, where licensed taxi drivers have stalled traffic in London, Paris and Madrid to protest this virtual transport company's invasion of their markets.
This bald incursion, traducing standard livery service regulations, has inspired not only the ire of official cabdrivers but the passion of investors, who have bid the value of Uber to $17 billion, making it the world's most valuable transportation company even though it owns no vehicles.
That seemingly outlandish value ought to be qualified by the anecdotal evidence of how many people in casual conversation turn out never to have used Uber or even know what it is — rather like the Internet in 1995. The Uber revolution, in other words, may be just beginning.
And, indeed, the conversion of non-users to dedicated adherents seems to be as rapid as the mass adoption of the Internet, in part because Uber seems to offer similar miraculous results. You push a button on a mobile app, and minutes later, without any negotiation or logistical discussion, an exceedingly polite driver is at your service.
True, this is hardly that different from calling your local black car or jalopy service, and yet, the lack of friction and greater reliability make all the difference. So much so that Uber, played out in a logical fashion, is a transformative threat not only to the taxi and limousine industry but to car ownership itself. With Uber, many of the more and more people who live in cities can easily and economically do without their own cars. (The urban young are already demonstrating a marked resistance to car ownership.)
That potential makes Uber the biggest business story of the day, and a massive economic disrupter, too — perhaps as big as or bigger than the shift from U.S.-made to foreign-made cars in the 1970s (this is not necessarily good news for the rest of the economy).
And Uber has ambitions well beyond this. It envisions itself as a new on-demand transportation infrastructure. In New York, an Uber driver will bring you, at your asking, an air conditioner. Uber proposes to be the Internet of the actual world.
There is an obvious impact here on employment, too. All you need are a driver's license, some social skills and a clean car to make what the company suggests can be a six-figure income.
All prompting the question: Is Uber dominance inevitable?
Curiously, its sudden and powerful promise is matched by its obvious fragility.
After all, Uber doesn't really exist. It has no fleet. It employs no drivers. There is no dispatch hub. There is no dispatcher at all. It is, rather — and, one might think, quite precariously — a system based entirely on mutual and convenient availability. Uber's software automatically provides a connection between people who want a ride and people in the business of providing one. Uber itself has no real relationship or, even, actual interaction with either party.
What's more, it's not fancy software. It's neat — you know where your car is, you watch your car come, no money changes hands — but it's trivial, and its functionality is largely available off the shelf. Almost anybody could do it. The technological barrier to entry is small.
Halo, one of its competitors, uses basically the same software and, to boot, is partnering with taxi companies and complying with local regulations. And yet the Uber valuation and its media reception suggest that it is, like Google and Amazon, on its way to creating a one-company market.
While it may not have mastered the transportation business, it is triumphing in the look-and-feel business. It is selling the illusion of effortlessness. It offers a respite from life's messiness. It is, really, in the life-enhancing business.
That means it is in a race with reality.
Can it project such awesomeness and such a new vision of happiness to shame local, Lilliputian regulation? European bureaucracies and labor unions are not easily shamed.
So far, Uber's high level of compensation (it splits 80/20 with its drivers, with drivers getting the 80) has supplied it with a perhaps unnaturally poised driver base. But as demand increases, you need more drivers to satisfy it, so you inevitably go to a less meritorious pool. Cars crash, drivers insult passengers, road rage reveals itself. Already, once smartly dressed Uberists seem a bit more disheveled, eating something smelly in the front seat. There are illusion-busting religious trinkets and deodorizers hanging from the rear-view mirror.
Can Uber remake the black car paradigm, imposing some new sense of order and propriety, before the black car paradigm remakes it?
Uber's biggest investor is Google. That also helps create the sense of deal done, case closed, future foretold. And yet Google, with its dream of driverless cars, may ultimately be an Uber competitor. Uber, whether it knows it or not, may merely be a stalking horse for the true mobility revolution to come.
And, too, this isn't the Internet. The road is real, not virtual. And what about the businesses — UPS, rental car companies, the automotive industry itself — with actual fleets of vehicles? Do they not lumber into consciousness?
Meanwhile, the Uber illusion is, so far, rather wonderfully real. In Paris, on the day of the taxi protest, I merely summoned an Uber to circumnavigate it.