Massachusetts Makes an Uber Screwup

uberPhoto via Thinkstock

Yesterday, in a move highlighting Massachusetts’ breathtaking bureaucratic idiocy, the state decided to shut down a new car service business called Uber. If you’re unfamiliar with Uber, the company’s basic premise is startlingly simple (and great): You download a GPS-enabled app that you can use to request a nearby towncar. The car arrives, drops you off at your destination, and automatically bills your credit card. No cash. The tip is included in the fee. It’s more expensive than a taxi, but the cars are nicer, the drivers more professional, and the payment is easier. Instead of windmilling on the sidewalk trying to hail a cab, you’re assured of actually having a car come when you need one.

Anyway, back in May, some Starsky and Hutch wannabes at the Cambridge Consumer Division conducted possibly the lamest “raid” ever: They called an Uber car, took a short ride, and then had a cop pull them over. They gave the driver citations for “operating an unlicensed livery service and using a measuring device not conforming to standards.” Uber, naturally, appealed the decision, which was brought before the state’s heretofore never-cared-about Divisions of Standards, which has the mind-numbing job of enforcing “laws, rules, and regulations relating to weights and measure.”

So, yesterday, the Division of Standards double-downed on Cambridge’s argument and ruled against Uber, claiming that GPS systems are illegal for commercial use in Massachusetts:

“…GPS has not been used in commercial applications for assessing transportation charges until Uber Technologies, Inc. introduced its use for this purpose. The major problem at this time is the fact that 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 understand that the Division of Standards sees its job very narrowly—they enforce laws on weights and measures!—but this is a staggeringly dumb decision. GPS systems, as Uber’s lawyers argued, has been around since 1978, so it’s a proven technology. And since 2008, the government’s required it to be accurate within about 25 feet, which is certainly accurate enough for a car service. And it’s not like consumers were complaining about being overcharged anyway—this was an overzealous Cambridge city employee who first got us down the road.

But this is seriously why people hate government and bureaucracy: The Division of Standards could have tried working with Uber—a business providing actual jobs for workers and a service for consumers—to make sure that everything was in line with the state code. Instead, they smacked them down.

  • Frederick

    I’ve used the UBER service many times, anyone is hooked from the first time they try it. Rather than dealing with angry, dishonest psychopath taxi drivers with their filthy cabs, erratic driving, and constant lies about the ‘meter/credit card machine/receipt printer being broken’, UBER is smooth and professional and highly efficient.

    If we have laws on the books that forbid the use of such a service, these laws need to be revised immediately.

  • MJ

    Oh, man, epic fail. Boston cabbies are the WORST. I have to give them directions–if they can speak English. Just for olfactory reasons alone, I’d like to use UBER.

  • John J

    Flabbergasted. I love the service. I love getting in clean cars that are not cramped, not fumbling with change or small receipts that are barely legible, not getting irritated responses from cabbies about credit cards. This could only be a problem in the event that you are a cab driver. My company loves the GPS receipts – expense reports are easier than ever.

    Massachusetts, you are small minded and antiquated. What you should be doing is helping cab companies get the same technology so they can compete on price (they can’t compete on quality).

  • Mark M.

    I have used Uber in Boston, Providence and NYC. It is available in many cities across the country. Leave it to our state to smack down innovation and entrepreneurship. Aside from the convenience and cleanliness of this service for the consumer, Uber was providing jobs for some really nice people. Our state is “Uber-broken”.

  • Eric

    This ruling has nothing to do with how accurate GPS is, how long it’s been used, or even that GPS is being used by Uber to locate customers. The citation issued by Cambridge police, which is what Uber chose to challenge in court, was that Uber was “using a measuring device not conforming to standards”. Uber is a taxi service, regardless of how they market themselves. Taxi services have certain rules they must abide by in order to provide service. Uber, as a taxi service, was NOT using a standardized measurement to determine cost. There is currently no standard defined to use GPS for the purposes of determining cab fair. This is what the D of S is saying. They are not attacking Uber’s use of GPS. They are simply upholding the law that Cambridge police cited Uber on because GPS currently cannot be used by taxi operators to determine cost. All Uber needs to do to comply with the law is use a taximeter.

  • D2Boston

    I have used Uber several times in and around Boston. This is a superlative service that utilizes technology the way technology was intended to be used… for the benefit of consumers.
    This move is nothing more than a play by the taxi companies and the hackney licensing body through this “Division of Standards” to stifle competition. People wonder why businesses leave this state… it’s because of BS like this… members of the old boy networks looking out for one another. If cabs can’t compete, then too bad.
    Who’s head needs to roll on this one? Where does a citizen direct his/her complaints, because we’re about to unload a whole world of hurt on these idiots. Uber must stay.

  • KK

    Shut down the Pedal cabs that operate for free! What unit of measure are they using to calculate free ? Show me the tax returns of the drivers declaring tips. Uber didn’t grease the correct rusty, old ,
    Square F’d up wheels. Uber will be back !

  • KK

    Shut down the Pedal cabs that operate for free! What unit of measure are they using to calculate free ? Show me the tax returns of the drivers declaring tips. Uber didn’t grease the correct rusty, old
    Square wheels. Uber will be back !

  • Jaof1

    This is why I hate mass. Hate on what makes it great. Facebook is in ca for a reason. I am a democrat, but america is not Europe ……..stop people………

    • Phil

      We aren’t Europe. In London, they have the best cabs in the world (it takes two to four years to pass the test to become a taxi driver in London)…and Über. I’ve used both there, and they are both superb.

  • Louis

    The 798 other reasons aside as to why this is total BS…. please direct your attention to safety. Four nights ago in the South End a friend of mine wanted to take a cab a few blocks home after leaving her restaurant job at 2am. Many Boston city taxi’s will not take you unless it is in their best interest and she was told “don’t waste my time” as the taxi sped off to find a better fare. Fast forward two nights later…said girl gets mugged in South End. Why? Because she lives just close enough to home to not be a good fare. This has happened to everyone at one point or another. Boston city taxis can decide if they will give you a lift based on where you are going and if they feel like it. Awesome community business model. I can literally use my Uber application to get a car just about anytime I need one and if I want to take it around the block for a spin and have it drop me off back at my doorstep it will cost me $15 and the driver will open the door for me getting in and out and wish me a good night…with a smile. Cease and desist the Boston City Taxis and reinstate Uber please.

  • J. M. Smig

    Can we have the real names of “Starsky and Hutch”? Weights and measures? That’s the department that checks the tares on grocery scales. How does this relate to a cab ride?

  • Wakeup

    Well, I highly doubt this has anything to do with bureaucracy and much more to do with money. Follow the trail people.

  • jen

    Have they never heard of Taxi Magic. We can track where the taxi is and how far. The cabs in Boston are the worst in the county, they refuse to turn on the Air, claim that the CC machine does not work and never know how to get any where Worst mistake ever!!

  • Jonathan

    I have to agree with the state on this one. I used Uber and it was a very “questionable” system. They even charged my credit card for a car service that never showed up. I of course disputed it with the credit card company and prevailed but all the same Uber operates as a scam.

  • Joshua Jachimczyk

    Use Promo Code: Ridebos135 to get a free ride upto 15$.