In my own particular case, by the time I picked up my Black car, I had already been a driver with all three of the big ride share companies, for anywhere from 4 months to 2 years, depending on the platform. What this meant for me was that I was highly experienced in my market. Nobody knows every little alley in a major metropolis by heart, but if you want to be considered a pro then you already know where most of the bigger hotels and major tourist attractions are and you drive with confidence and precision. You also have some pretty decent customer service skills. You know when to turn on the charm, handle people who are drunk and pick up and drop off your passengers safely. A little tip: Always, always, always watch out for bikes when your passengers exit, and warn them to look out, too. You could save yourself and your passenger a big lawsuit that way. Along the way, you have also learned to avoid parking and moving violations, and to use your technology efficiently and without letting it distract you from the driving at hand. You know the ropes of driving in your particular town.
A word about the rate cuts on X and Lyft - which were my primary motivation for making the switch. They started out in earnest at the beginning of 2014, January I think it was. They always followed a predictable pattern. The companies would cut rates, but drivers wouldn't feel it at first, because the companies would also cut their own commissions - for a time that would be left unspecified. When they started doing this in early '14, I could see the writing on the wall. I knew that the price cuts might be permanent but that the commissions were coming back. I knew it was only a matter of time before the $1000 - $1500 a week I was making would soon be less and I didn't want to see that happen to me. I had already gotten livery insurance, my state limo license and the airport permit back in the late summer of '13, because I didn't want to play cat and mouse at the airport, and I was doing a lot of business down there. So I knew it was time to step up my game and go Black. I liked driving and I wanted to make that proverbial 2 grand a week all the black car drivers were always talking about. What I didn't know was if the rate cuts would follow into Black / SUV. I didn't think they would.
Here's why. From the outset, Lyft was a company that Uber had to fight back against. They developed X to do just that. Uber paved the way for ride apps by starting off as a Black Car only company. Uber started in SF. Black cars in SF at the time Uber began were fairly idle most days after the morning rush. They were underutilized. Using only licensed, insured and permitted cars, Uber began to revolutionize dispatch of these vehicles. For a more detailed analysis of how Uber pulled this off, see this article. Lyft and SideCar saw an opportunity to bring what Uber was doing to the masses. They saw how they could take Uber's idea and use non professional drivers to grow another side of the business - the cheap alternative. Sure there would be legal challenges. But this was San Francisco, it was 2012 and the economy was in a huge uptick.
Thousands of new jobs in tech were being created and all those techies needed a way to get to work and to the bars and home after. Mayor Ed Lee was beholden to the tech industry, having basically been put into office by one of the leading technology investors of the time. From day one, his words to the SF Police Department were "Hands off the ride share companies". The time was right, the place was right. Lyft and SideCar took a deep breath, gathered together a few million in venture capital and made their move. Uber was taking off and they wanted in. They wanted a piece of the action. From the get go, Lyft and SideCar undercut Uber on price, and people loved them. It was yet another feat the riders could do on their iPhones, the drivers were friendly and the cars clean. And it was cheaper than Uber Black. The growth of all three companies was further fueled by the revulsion people felt for taxicabs, for reasons too numerous to go into right now.
SideCar actually started before Lyft but a series of missteps had them stubbing their toe right from the start line. They couldn't get the app to work right, their marketing was a little weaker. Lyft, on the other hand, had pretty slick technology and the pink mustache, even though it was goofy - or perhaps simply because of it's goofiness - was a marketing stroke of genius. Once Lyft started and it began to grow, it became clear who the real contender to Uber would be. Suddenly pink mustaches were everywhere, and Lyft was clearly gunning for market share. Their culture of peer to peer friendliness was a breath of fresh air, with the goofy decorations and fist bumps, the younger, more economically minded crowd of students and young professionals could take part in the revolution as well. Uber's Black business began to feel the pinch. Rather than watch a big chunk of his business evaporate, Travis Kalanick, Uber's CEO, launched UberX to stop the bleeding and fight back and protect his Black Car business. Lyft, in striking first and going head to head with Uber, sewed the seeds of a nasty rivalry that sometimes seems comically fierce. Ever since Lyft's first shot across the bow, Kalanick and Company have fought back against Lyft in a feud that would likely impress the Hatfields and the McCoys. But first to market, Uber had the tech infrastructure and the marketing chops to quickly grow Uber X into a force to be reckoned with.
Black/SUV is Uber's flagship product, and they work hard to keep the standards high, both through higher ratings requirements for drivers and through higher standards for their vehicles. Requiring them to be newer, for example. There are only so many clients, also, that fit the demographic for this product. These clients are highly discerning and are expecting premium service, and they should get it, considering the prices they are paying. Dropping down prices will not help these clients to be well taken care of. Drivers have made that clear. The market for Black has already been flooded with cars for a while. After all it's the oldest and most established product Uber sells. Adding too many more cars and lowering prices in Black would only antagonize the providers of Uber Black Car Service and that service could suffer. One can already almost always get a Black car within 5 minutes from anywhere in most major metro areas around the country. I don't believe now and I didn't believe then that Uber wants to slash prices for Black/SUV. X is the cheap, mass market alternative that is there to compete with their arch nemesis, Lyft and keep them at bay. That product is where the Lyft defense is strongest. It would only stand to reason that they would hold up prices for their premium brand. At least that was my thinking then. And it remains my thinking.
But back to my situation. Once I convinced myself that Uber would not collapse Black prices, I needed a car. But first I needed to know that I could get into the Black/SUV club. I contacted my rep at Uber, and he told me that Black was closed, but that SUV was open. He also said that SUV took Black calls. So if I bought an SUV on Uber's Acceptable Vehicles List, I'd be able to service both sets of requests, for sedans as well as SUVs. Good enough. I did a lot of online shopping, and made my decision. Marched down to the dealer, and drove away with my vehicle, with 1% financing on a commercial loan and a 30% deposit, a lot of which I had made driving X at the airport, I was ready to ramble.
Recently, Uber has announced in my market that SUV is now closed. But if the past is any indication, they'll be opening it up periodically as the need arises so partners can add cars. Other markets in other states and cities will likely be different. Check with your local driver support staff.
The way I got my state limo license was fairly straightforward - I asked a black car driver how to do it: Here's what he told me:
Get the car. Find out which programs are open now and get a hold of Uber's acceptable vehicle list to see which one you want to buy. Then buy it. If you need a loan, you'll likely need to get your car at an established dealer since they are the only ones who can get commercial loans for you. You need a commercial loan in order to get livery insurance. That's important, really important. Don't forget that step.
The newer the car the better, in my opinion, since Uber will phase out vehicles on Black by age quicker than they will on X. Plus, you don't want to buy someone else's problems.
As soon as you have your car, get Livery insurance for your car. In many cases, including mine, the insurance agent who sells you the insurance can do the filing for the state Livery license. This isn't a drivers license, it's more of a business license to operate a vehicle for hire in your jurisdiction.
Once you have your Livery license, apply for your airport permit. You may have to take a class at the airport, and put together a large application packet.
Depending on the airport, you'll need to be patient because there may be a waiting period of a few weeks to a few months.
Then when you have your car plus all three added items (the livery insurance, the livery license and the airport permit), you can apply with Uber Black/SUV, if they are still accepting new cars in your market and assuming you bought an acceptable car. You're probably already on X so you've already been background checked and your driving record is ok.
Very straightforward, but there are a few sub-steps that can take a little time. For example, the livery license in my state requires drug testing, fingerprinting, a couple of trips to the DMV to get commercial plates and then turn them back in for livery plates, things like that. The whole process takes a few months. It's time consuming and there is a fair amount of red tape and bureaucrats to deal with. Sometimes you get good civil servants, more often you get folks who are responsible for the saying, "Good enough for government work". Also, you need money. Livery insurance is expensive. So is the license, as is the airport permit deposit. The government has their hand out at every turn, so you kind of have to have a greater vision that all of this investment is going to pay off. Me, once I knew what I wanted, I charged ahead. I am glad I did it, of course, but at times you kind of wonder what the hell you are getting yourself into.
Anyway, these are the basics. Once I had everything, Uber was only too happy to activate me. I try my best to be a top driver, and make good money, and I do feel that it was all worth it in the end. I like what I do, and I do it well with pride. I own my own business, I make a good living, and I call my own shots. As long as I take care of the customers, things go smoothly.
In addition, I have developed a private client business that is taking off as well, and of course, 100% of that revenue is mine. So there's that side to look forward to as well. Uber doesn't really book charters, wine tours, etc. so that is the business I go after. I built a website, took out Google and Yahoo listings, tell friends, and hung out a shingle on social media. And there are plenty of people out there who want to book their airport rides with a known individual, not hail on an app, especially for early morning pickups in outlying suburbs. So there's plenty of other opportunity for you once you have your nice ride. Also, don't forget, if things are really slow, you can turn on Lyft or SideCar and go right to work.
I don't solicit my Uber clients for private business. To my mind, it's a conflict of interest that can only have a negative impact. There are plenty of ways to get the word out without trying to bite the hand that feeds me. Food for thought.
In future articles, I will go into the tactics and strategies I use to ring the register and help these investments to pay off. For now, I hope you can use these nuts and bolts to put together a plan of action going forward if being a Black Car driver is something you'd like to take on.