FARGO-North Dakota's first Uber drivers took to the road here Thursday.
The company, which has clashed repeatedly with the taxicab industry and regulators, enables customers to use an app on their smartphones to summon drivers who use their personal vehicles.
Uber officials did not specify how many drivers are signed up in Fargo, but the company's North Dakota chief, Sagar Shah, said the number is in the dozens.
Speaking at a news conference Thursday hosted by two business groups, Shah said that in the six months leading up to the launch date, 7,500 people looked on the app for rides here.
"We've seen a lot of interest," he said.
How it works
Uber is similar to a traditional taxi service in that a driver is paid to take a passenger from Point A to Point B.
But while taxis historically have been summoned with a call or on the street, Uber cars are hailed with the press of a button on a smartphone app.
Uber drivers work on their own schedule, for as many or as few hours as they please, and can use their personal vehicle to transport passengers. The app provides a map view of available drivers and their real-time locations, and in Fargo, a small number were seen about town at one time.
An Uber passenger enters their credit card information into the app on their phone and never pays cash to the driver. There is no tipping.
Uber drivers tend to be people who want to make some extra money on a flexible schedule. To become a driver, they sign up online and go through a process that includes a motor vehicle and criminal history check. Their car needs to be younger than 10 years.
On Thursday, this reporter and a photographer used the app to zip between Fargo and Moorhead.
The west-to-east trip went off without a snag, but our return ride started with a hitch.
When we requested a ride from the Moorhead Center Mall, our location was mysteriously set to 417 4th St. S.
On our phone, we were able to watch our Uber driver-Craig in a Kia Sportage-circle around a south Moorhead block once, twice, three times, until we realized the error and called him through the app.
When he finally arrived, the 63-year-old Moorhead man invited us into his van.
"You're my first fare," he said. "Two trips canceled on me."
Craig Thompson took us from the mall across the river to Fargo and up Broadway to Seventh Avenue, then back down to The Forum's office at 101 5th St. N.
Thompson is disabled, but can drive and enjoys it-so he thought Uber would be a good way to make "a few bucks." Drivers take 80 percent of the fare, according to another Uber driver, Dan Haglund.
The base fare is $2, plus $1.50 per mile and 25 cents per minute, according to Uber.
Regulations passed this year by the North Dakota Legislature require ride-hailing companies to provide insurance coverage for their drivers from the moment a driver turns on the app, even if there is no passenger in the car, to the moment a passenger leaves the car.
To be eligible, drivers must clear a criminal background check and must not have been convicted for, among other things, reckless driving in the past three years, or driving under the influence in the past seven years.
Not everyone in town thinks Uber is OK.
The owner of Doyle Cab noted that Uber has exited markets-including the state of Kansas-because it would not accept regulation.
"All we ask as an industry is that they have insurance, which also protects the welfare of the customer," said Jim Peinovich, whose family has owned Doyle since 1935.
He said Sen. Jonathan Casper, R-Fargo, who led the charge for Uber-friendly legislation in Bismarck, "needs to do a little homework."
Sean Bennett, the owner of GoCab, said he expected Uber's entrance to negatively impact his business, and questioned whether they were held to the same standard as taxi companies.
At the Uber news conference, the atmosphere was party-like. Notables in the Fargo entrepreneur community praised Uber, and Uber praised them.
Casper told those in attendance that he pushed hard for Uber to come here after being contacted by Fargo resident Joe Burgum, whom Uber labeled a "community champion."
"It was really exciting" working to help Uber, Casper said. "We put in place legislation that makes sure that we're providing safe, reliable rides."
He said taxi companies didn't testify against the pro-Uber legislation he pushed.
That's because "we're not politically active," said Peinovich. "But if Mr. Casper wanted to find out, all he had to do was a little due diligence."
He added: "There's just so many issues here, and I don't think anybody's thought it through."
Free offer this week
Uber offers three free rides through Thursday to those who use the promotional code FARGOFREE.