Rachel Holt, left, general manager of the Uber Washington DC… (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore…)
Under the plush leather exterior of Uber Technologies Inc. beats the heart of a rebel.
The app-driven startup, which began operations in Baltimore at the end of January, hopes to attract upscale customers who don't mind paying extra — a lot extra — for the luxury of hiring a town car by smartphone to take them where they want to go.
"All we're doing is helping people find a classy ride easily," said Rachel Holt, general manager of Uber's local operation. "When you look at transportation in Baltimore, there's room for us here."
To carve out space in cities across the country, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick thumbs his nose at the establishment: the taxi and limo companies and local regulators who don't know what to make of his startup. Kalanick, critics say, moves in first and asks for permission later, counterpunching against resistance by accusing public officials of protecting the old guard.
Baltimore is shaping up as the latest battleground.
Century-old Yellow Cab filed a challenge with the Maryland Public Service Commission, contending that Uber should not be allowed to operate here until it complies with the same safety and insurance regulations as traditional taxi and limo companies.
Commission staff members have recommended that Yellow Cab's cease-and-desist request be denied because at the time of their review, Uber had not begun operations. The case will be heard Wednesday.
"They play on an unlevel playing field. They don't play by the regulatory rules," said Mark Joseph, CEO and vice chairman of Veolia Transportation, parent of Yellow Cab. "We know Uber very well. They are great for rich people. They are great at skimming the cream off the top."
Uber insists it is playing by the rules.
"Before we enter a market, we do our research," Holt said. "The biggest go, no-go for us are the local laws. In Baltimore, we're totally legal."
Uber got its start in 2009 in San Francisco and has attracted more than $40 million from investors, including Goldman Sachs. It has branches in more than a dozen U.S. cities as well as London, Berlin and Paris. The company launched its Washington operation in late 2011.
Unlike traditional for-hire operations, the company does not own cars or employ drivers. Instead, it draws its stock and manpower from contracts with limousine companies and independent drivers with their own luxury cars. Customers sign up, download the Uber app, set their pickup location and request a ride. The company uses GPS technology to find the nearest driver for the pickup.
There is no exchange of cash or tip. The entire transaction, including 20 percent tip, is processed through the customer's account. Uber charges about double the city's taxi fare schedule but below what it would cost to hire a private car by traditional means. The driver gets a cut of the fare.
Uber publishes its rates but does not calculate an estimated total, except for flat-rate trips between downtown Baltimore and Washington ($140) and to the region's three airports. It uses dynamic pricing, charging more when demand is high, weather is bad or drivers are few. The minimum fare is $15, and there is a $20 cancellation fee.
When a ride ends, the passenger and driver rate each other. Uber said it weeds out drivers with poor ratings, and drivers can use the rating to choose their fares and ignore requests from boorish passengers.
"You can go out with friends at night and not worry about how you're going to get home," Holt said. "When you open the app to get a ride, we know that, so we've got the data to show where people want rides and we're able to adjust in a market."
The company declined to say how many drivers it has in Baltimore or how many fares it carried while operating in "stealth" mode here before its formal launch.
Uber officials insist they work for a technology company, not a transportation company. Uber operates more like eBay, facilitating a transaction between private parties. It's a blurring of lines that has annoyed and confounded the competition and regulators from California to Boston.
Alfred LaGasse, president of the Taxicab, Limousine and Paratransit Association, laughed at Uber's attempt to create a new category for itself.
"Uber is a transportation company, no matter how hard they try not to be," he said. "They don't make money on the app. They make money off the trip you take."
The international trade group labeled Uber a "rogue" service "operating outside of the public's best interests. ... Such apps are a danger to public safety and operate in violation of community standards for taxi and limousine transportation in terms of passenger safety, access, nondiscrimination and regulated fares."
In fact, LaGasse said, one only has to look at the fine print that accompanies signing up for the app to see that Uber is out for itself.