Massachusetts Makes an Uber Screwup

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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.