Uber and Lyft have some competition: Meet Wingz and DriveSociety

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TAMPA — The Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission's efforts to rein in rideshare firms over the past two years meant dealing with just two companies: Uber and Lyft.

Now, with the two sides seemingly close to agreeing on a framework for regulation, Tampa Bay's rideshare landscape is about to get more complicated with new firms seeking a slice of the business.

San Francisco firm Wingz is launching a major expansion of its airport drop-off and pickup service and has Tampa International Airport on its radar.

There's also a Tampa rideshare company called DriveSociety set to launch in the next few weeks. The firm will request to take part in drawing up new rideshare regulations at the PTC's board meeting on Wednesday.

The PTC regulates for-hire vehicles such as taxis and limos in Hillsborough. Both Wingz and DriveSociety say they are amenable to existing PTC rules such as background checks for drivers and vehicle inspections — rules that Uber and Lyft have argued don't apply to them. To operate in Austin, Wingz agreed to fingerprint-based background checks of its drivers, a requirement that led Uber and Lyft to cease operations in that city.

"If one transportation network company can come into Tampa Bay or Florida and operate legally, then why can't the others?" asked PTC Executive Director Kyle Cockream.

Still, he said the arrival of more competition is unlikely to give the PTC more leverage in its negotiations with Uber. The Silicon Valley startup is now a worldwide powerhouse in the rideshare market and has lobbied Tallahassee lawmakers to take regulation of the industry out of the hands of Hillsborough's local regulator, the only agency of its kind in Florida.

"Uber is the 800-pound gorilla in the room," Cockream said, "and, anyway you look at it, the regulating agencies are going to have to deal with Uber."

Wingz already serves 18 airports in states along the West Coast and in Texas including Dallas, Houston and Los Angeles. Like Uber and Lyft, customers book a ride by using a smartphone app. The difference is rides are booked in advance with a locked-in price, which is typically higher than an Uber fare but still less than a regular taxicab. That also means Wingz users are not subject to Uber's surge-pricing, when demand drives rates up.

Wingz encourages drivers to build relationships with their passengers to earn repeat bookings. It's an approach that appeals to business travelers and seniors, said CEO Chris Brandon.

In addition to Florida, the startup is also targeting North Carolina and Tennessee.

"We think there is a substantial amount of business travelers who move up and down the East Coast," Brandon said.

Austin is the only market where Wingz drivers undergo a fingerprint background check, a concession made so the company could expand its service beyond airport pickups. Fingerprint background checks will be mandatory for all drivers eventually, Brandon said.

"As a company, we want to represent ourselves around trust and security," he said. "Our goal is to have a national pool of drivers who have been fingerprinted."

DriveSociety also plans to fingerprint its drivers. The new startup, headquartered in Tampa, is the brainchild of Marcus Carter, a 32-year-old former financial advisor who drove for Uber for about six months.

Rideshare firms have a duty to ensure the safety of its customers, he said, and he welcomes the full background checks and vehicle inspections the PTC is pushing Uber and Lyft to adopt.

"I don't see why innovation should cause us to lower our standards in terms of safety," Carter said. "Who's really taking you home at night?"

DriveSociety has already paid for development of a smartphone app and plans to be operational within 60 days, Carter said. It could begin registering drivers and their vehicles as soon as Friday.

The firm plans to be more driver friendly than Uber, said Carter, who was frustrated he earned so little when driving for a company that in December was valued at $62 billion, according to Bloomberg.

In Tampa Bay, the average Uber fare is 80 cents per mile, although prices vary depending on demand and how many drivers are working. The company takes between 20 to 25 percent of all fares and in some markets also charges a rider fee. Its drivers are treated as independent contractors instead of employees.

Drivers with DriveSociety will also be independent contractors. The firm will take a 25 percent cut of fares but will not charge rider fees.

"We're going to make sure our drivers can take home what they need and our riders aren't being gouged or charged too much," Carter said.

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times

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