Web-age cab company Uber is taking heat at Jacksonville City Hall for operating a service that critics say could connect passengers to unqualified or under-insured drivers.


“It basically gives anybody with a car and a license and insurance the ability to turn themselves into a cab,” Matt Ford, the owner of a car-chartering company, told City Council members last week who met to hear complaints about the local arrival of uberX, a discount version of the trendy ride-dispatching app used in dozens of cities.

Uber began operating in Jacksonville last year, providing black sedans priced for middle- and upper-income travelers.

It calls the new service “the low-cost Uber,” featuring cheaper, generally smaller rides that are often owned by the driver, who signs up online to work through the company.

That’s pretty much where critics, also often competitors, start to argue there’s not enough quality control to protect customers.

“You have no idea what you’re getting into,” said Marcus Blount, CEO of Jacksonville-based Executive Cab, who runs down a checklist of concerns. “No commercial insurance. No inspection from the city or regulation. … It’s just Joe Schmoe picking you up in his Mercury Cougar.”

Uber’s appeal is that riders can have clean, straightforward service, since they can use a cellphone app from any location Uber serves to summon a car that’s billed against a credit card already on file.

Uber gets a cut of the fare for connecting the passenger and driver, but doesn’t own any cars itself or keep drivers on its payroll.

Black sedans are often owned by some car service and used purely for driving customers, but uberX cars – the lower-case u is intentional – could be personal cars whose owners are trying to pay the bills.

“Since launching uberX in Jacksonville, hundreds of drivers have partnered with Uber to increase their earnings and live a more comfortable lifestyle,” spokeswoman Natalia Montalvo said by email Thursday.

Making the cut as a driver isn’t simple, she said.

Drivers really go through three levels of background checks dating back seven years, Montalvo said. She said records from counties, multiple states and federal data help weed out people who shouldn’t be driving, and she said uberX carries a $1 million insurance policy, a lot more than is normally required of taxis.

But getting agreement on local controls over uberX hasn’t been entirely simple.

When Uber representatives arranged last fall for changes in local laws to help the company compete, Jacksonville council members were assured uberX wouldn’t be used locally, only the stuffier-looking black car service.

Mayoral aide Margo Klosterman told council members last month she learned uberX was running locally because she’s an Uber customer, but that city officials were still looking for information on its operation.

Parking division chief Jack Shad, whose office regulates cars for hire, told council members he tried to reach Uber with some questions, but “we haven’t gotten a lot of response.”

A lobbyist for Uber, Joe Mobley, told council members the company wasn’t sure uberX was subject to local regulations, anyway. The service, Mobley said, was really a form of “ride sharing,” like if you and a neighbor went in one car to a Jaguars game.

That sounded like a stretch to council members.

“To repeat: They claim that uberX drivers are merely engaged in ‘a ride-sharing’ arrangement that is no different than carpooling,” Councilman Robin Lumb wrote in an email asking General Counsel Jason Gabriel for guidance. “(Of course, with carpooling the driver is actually going the same place as his passengers.)”

Gabriel wasn’t going the same way at all, and an attorney under him advised Lumb Wednesday that services like uberX and Lyft, another new service in Jacksonville, seem to be “engaged in impermissible solicitation of transportation services” and should follow permitting, insurance and licensure rules already required of cab companies.

What that means for the companies wasn’t clear Thursday.

“We are reviewing the opinion and will determine how we move forward pending that review,” a city spokeswoman, Kristen Sell, said by email.

Lumb said last week that it was important to get the right answer, since other companies are sure to follow in coming years.

“There will be more. This is just the first,” he said.

Steve Patterson: (904) 359-4263