Sidecar hopes to compete with Uber by using part-time drivers and letting riders decide what to pay. Will it work?

There's been a lot of buzz about Uber lately. The on-demand car service app that lets users order a professional driver with the touch of a button has become popular as a guaranteed way to get around. It’s available in most major U.S. cities as well as London, Paris and Amsterdam. Wait time is minimal and service is reliable. There’s just one catch -- cost.

An Uber ride costs about 50 percent more than what you’d pay to travel the same distance in a cab. And when demand is high, like on New Years’ Eve or when Hurricane Sandy hit, prices go up.

But what if you could find someone to drive you wherever you needed to go for a lot less?

That’s where SideCar comes in. SideCar is a crowd-sourced, ride-sharing app that launched last June in San Francisco. Here’s how it works: the app directs users to input their address and where they want to go and uses GPS to show drivers where to pick the person up. The app displays how far away the driver is, what car they’re driving and when they’ll arrive.

"I really like that you can track the car and know exactly how long it is until it gets there," says Jessica Levis, a San Francisco resident (and friend of mine) who uses the app. "With a cab it could be 3 minutes, it could be 20, but with SideCar you know exactly when it will arrive."

So how is this different from Uber? To start, it’s a lot less expensive. It’s also cheaper than taking a cab. At the end of the ride, the app displays a suggested donation based on what other users have paid to travel similar distances. You can adjust the price and you don’t have to pay at all.

The incentive to pay, other than karma, is that SideCar has users and drivers rate each other at the end of the ride. If you skip out on payment, your rating will go down and drivers will be less likely to pick you up in the future. Users sync their credit card with the app, decide how much to pay and money is transferred to the driver’s bank account, with SideCar taking a 20 percent cut.

Another way SideCar is different from Uber is the person who picks you up. Uber contracts with professional drivers while SideCar connects regular people with extra space in their car with anyone who wants a ride. The company vets its drivers -- they have to pass a background check and have a valid license and registration -- but they’re not professionals and most of them are part-time.

"Everyone is very friendly," Levis says. “It’s an eclectic mix of people and you never know who you’re going to get, which is kind of fun actually.” Dana Degrazia, another SideCar user in San Francisco, adds: “It feels like you’re getting a ride with a friend.”  
 
On a recent visit to San Francisco, I tried SideCar for myself. My driver, a man who looked like he was in his early 50s, showed up on time a few minutes after I called for a ride. He asked where I was headed and I told him the name of a restaurant I was going to in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District. "Oh you’ll love it!" he exclaims. "My wife and I go there all the time. You have to get the beignets!"


When I asked how he liked working for SideCar, he was similarly enthusiastic. "It’s been great," he says. "I’ve really gotten to know the city better. I’ve lived here thirty years, but there are so many neighborhoods and places here I didn’t even know existed."

But there’s always the risk that someone won’t pay. My next SideCar driver, a much younger man who picked me up with his dog, a Collie/Chow mix, sitting in the front seat, comments: "it’s a donation based system so it’s kind of a risky thing and sometimes it does happen."

And accepting a ride with someone you don’t know might make some people uneasy. "My only concern with SideCar," says Levis, "is just the sheer fact that you’re getting into someone’s car that you don’t know, which could be a little unnerving. But the truth of the matter is I’ve never had a bad experience."

SideCar has more than 500 drivers in the Bay Area and has organized thousands of rides in San Francisco and Seattle, where it launched last November. All this success has started to cut into Uber’s profits. So much so that Uber recently announced plans to unveil a ridesharing service of its own in California.

And with SideCar set to expand to 16 new U.S. cities, Uber may need to change the way it operates in other parts of the country as well if it wants to compete with the start-up.

SideCar’s expansion is sure to generate pushback from regulators as well. Last August, SideCar, along with two other ride-sharing apps, Lyft and Tickengo, was hit with a cease-and-desist order from the California Public Utilities Commission. It continued to operate but was later fined $20,000 by the same regulatory body for public safety violations. (The charges are still pending). If SideCar can get past regulatory hurdles, however, its expansion stands to benefit consumers across the U.S. as transportation options increase and prices go down.

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