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When it comes to car inspections, Uber phones it in

A checklist for mechanics conducting 21-point car inspections of ridesharing vehicles. Some Uber drivers are getting their vehicle inspecting via "video-chat" with the mechanic examining the car remotely.
A checklist for mechanics conducting 21-point car inspections of ridesharing vehicles. Some Uber drivers are getting their vehicle inspecting via "video-chat" with the mechanic examining the car remotely.
Published Dec. 16, 2016

TAMPA — Uber and Lyft cars must be checked by a mechanic at least once a year to remain legal in Hillsborough County, a concession that Public Transportation Commission leaders said would help ensure the safety of the traveling public.

But it turns out that mechanics will not get their hands under the hood of every Uber car.

Some Uber drivers are getting their cars certified as roadworthy based solely on a 15-minute video-chat inspection with a mechanic. The company says that qualified mechanics can diagnose when a vehicle is subpar just by examining images sent from the driver's smartphone.

That has alarmed PTC leaders who said that was not part of a temporary agreement they approved in November for Uber and Lyft to operate legally in Hillsborough through the end of 2017.

"Who knows if they're showing the people the right car," said PTC board member David Pogorilich, who also serves as a Temple Terrace City Council member. Uber officials "don't truly care about the safety of the traveling public," he said. "They care about their pockets."

Existing Uber drivers must get a 21-point inspection of their cars completed by Jan. 6 to be in compliance with the new rules. Among the items covered are suspension, muffler and exhaust systems, and a check for oil leaks.

The inspection should be conducted by "an automobile technician or mechanic who works for an auto repair facility that is registered with or licensed by a state or local governmental body," the agreement states, but it does not stipulate that the inspection be in person.

On its website, the company recommends drivers get traditional inspections and recommends several auto repair businesses including Meineke and Jiffy Lube. But about 10 percent of inspections conducted so far in Hillsborough were done via video-chat, Uber officials acknowledged.

The service is intended to cater to drivers who have other jobs and would miss work if they had to take their car to a mechanic.

Images sent by phone are taken from predetermined positions and angles including pictures of brake pads and rotors. Some vehicles have been failed based on a video-chat inspection, according to Uber.

"We continue working with driver partners in the Tampa area in accordance with the terms agreed to in the Temporary Operating Agreement, including the vehicle inspection requirement," said spokesman Javi Correoso.

But Uber officials never mentioned video inspections during talks with former PTC chairman Victor Crist, who negotiated the operating agreement.

"Video chat? You've got to have a mechanic touch and feel and look at a car," Crist said. "That was not the intent or spirit of what we hoped to do. We want a real inspection of the vehicle that a mechanic can sign off on and trust his license to."

Uber's biggest rival, Lyft, is conducting only traditional in-person inspections, said spokeswoman Chelsea Harrison.

Among mechanics and those who work in the vehicle inspection field there was plenty of skepticism that faults in a car could be detected over a smartphone screen.

Dan Peña, the general manager of Guy's Automotive in Tampa, said he had never heard of inspections being done that way.

For a typical inspection, he raises the car on a lift to check for rust and other faults. He removes tires to inspect the brakes. A smartphone image would not show fuel line cracks or issues with seat belts, he said.

"That's actually a joke," he said. "That's kind of like seeing how the paint looks."

Ezra Folsom, a captain with the Florida Highway Patrol Office of Commercial Vehicle Enforcement, agreed.

"I don't believe you could do it effectively by someone walking around a vehicle holding a phone and having a mechanic looking at it," he said.

New PTC chairman Al Higginbotham said he was troubled by the video inspections but wants more information before deciding if the agency needs to take action. The issue will likely be raised at the next PTC board meeting in January.

"My next step is to find out if this meets the industry standard," he said.

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.