New way to get around West Michigan, but there are Uber concerns

Posted at 11:52 PM, Jul 24, 2014
and last updated 2014-07-24 23:52:41-04

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. - Uber has come to West Michigan. The smartphone app connects everyday people with cars with strangers who are willing to pay for rides.

Fans around the world say it’s amazingly convenient and cheap. Now it’s come to Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo, and with it come questions whether it's legal or risky.

California-based company Uber has been advertising for months in Michigan, seeking drivers  for it’s rideshare service.

"Give rides, get cash." That’s Uber’s motto to get drivers to work for their company. They say all you need is to know your way around the city.

Uber became available Wednesday, July 23, in Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Lansing, and Flint. In just four short years, Uber is already worth an estimated $17 billion and in 140 cities in 40 countries.

For anybody looking for a ride, the process is easy. Download Uber to your phone, enter your payment info, and you can find your next ride within minutes. While the application clearly values convenience, it begs the questions of how they pick their drivers and how the drivers are vetted and regulated.

“I just activated today, so I’m really excited,” said new Uber driver Sarah Freeman. She says she is psyched to make some extra cash by carting people around.

But to join Uber, Freeman she says she had to pass some road blocks. "They run a background check, pretty extensive actually. They run your driver's license, your record, insurance. If there's any red flags whatsoever, you will not be registered or allowed to drive."

But an ad for a driver for Uber on doesn’t say anything about a background check. The only requirements listed are that you need to be at least 23 years old, have a four-door vehicle 2005 or newer, and proper registration and insurance.

A month ago Fox 17 News talked to police to Grand Rapids Police Lt. Patrick Merill, who has concerns over the safety of drivers and passengers using the application. “There are several nationwide that offer services like this. It’s almost like a Craigslist taxi," he said.

Lt. Merill says law enforcement conducts background checks on all drivers who apply for a taxi license with the city, and makes sure the driver has the proper car insurance. "So, you actually have a degree of comfort you may not realize is there, and that’s because it’s a process that’s developed over the course of 80 years in the city of Grand Rapids,” Merill said.

“If you take all of those things out of the mix, and now you really have a kind of wild west version of a taxi service,” said Lt. Merill.

On July 15, Uber posted a blog post that said they will be conducting over two million background checks. The company is conducting an audit with the former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and his security team at Giuliani Partners. The audit will review Uber’s driver background check process and related systems. Uber says they are open to constantly improving safety, so when people like Sarah Freeman come to pick you up, you don’t have any hesitation to get in the car.