A nonprofit Uber? Ride Austin promises better driver pay, charity donations

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Flickr/Charles Henry
Earlier this month, Uber and Lyft left the Texas capital of Austin, but a new venture is stepping up to fill the void while adding a philanthropic twist.

Starting today, a new ride-sharing service will hit the App Store, and unlike Uber and Lyft, it will be a nonprofit that will give back to the community.

Ride Austin is a new ride-sharing service started by tech entrepreneur Joe Liemandt. He’s the CEO of Trilogy, an automotive and consumer electronics software company. When Austinites voted against a referendum, ultimately requiring Uber and Lyft drivers to be fingerprinted, the two companies left the city in protest. That didn’t dissuade Liemandt, as he saw an opportunity to bring a different flavor to the the ride-sharing space.

Ride Austin also wants to do something about those pesky surge prices that are often found during peak hours.

Digital Trends sat down with Joe Deshotel, the director of communications for Ride Austin, to get insight on how exactly this new venture plans to shake up ride-sharing.

The main differentiating factor for Ride Austin is its altruistic nature. “Rider[s] will be able to round up their fares and donate that to charity” said Deshotel. It’s pretty simple: Riders will be given an option to round up their fares to the nearest dollar, and the difference between the fare and what they actually paid will go toward a charity of their choice.

It’s a unique way to both fill the ride-sharing void in Austin and help charities. And Ride Austin has an extensive plan to help the local community while building public interest. It will be launching a Kickstarter campaign that will act as a way to gauge consumer enthusiasm. It will also allow riders to “earmark donations for underserved communities” said Deshotel, meaning that “if you want to donate 50 rides for an underserved community, like the disabled, you’ll be able to do that.”

For consumers, there hasn’t been much choice other than Uber and Lyft. The two companies have created a duopoly in the ride-sharing space, which for some cities can be suffocating. “Here in Austin, we have an opportunity to do something unique” said Deshotel, “with a platform that was built by Austinites for Austinites.” Since it’s a nonprofit “we don’t have to take a percentage off the top to give to investors,” meaning that “we can pay drivers better and keep prices down for riders.”

Ride Austin

Because Ride Austin is a nonprofit, it will have similarities to other charitable organizations. “As a nonprofit, we’re going to be completely transparent” said Deshotel. This means that pay for all employees and board members will be public knowledge, and so will data.

“Uber and Lyft notoriously horde data and don’t share that with municipalities” lamented Deshotel. “We will have the opposite approach and we will make our data public to everyone; we will make our data public to the city so they can improve transit planning; we’ll make our data public to riders so they can choose the best times to ride; we’ll make it public to drivers so they can choose the best time to drive.”

Ride Austin hopes that institutions can use this data in unique ways. “We already know that the University of Texas is interested in our transit data” said Deshotel “in terms of pickups, drop-off location, peak time, pricing fluctuation―all these things will be open to the public so that the public can engage and inform us as to how we can improve our service.”

Even though Ride Austin has only been in development for the past two weeks, the team has been hard at work making the app, centering it around driver needs and wants. After interviewing hundreds of drivers, the reaction has been “very positive” said Deshotel. Features like giving drivers someone to call if an issue arises have polled tremendously well, he said.

Ride Austin also wants to do something about those pesky surge prices that are often found during peak hours. “We know drivers like surge but riders don’t” said Deshotel. “So we’re going to experiment with an optional version where, basically, if you opt into the surge, you’ll get a ride much faster … or if you opt not to do the surge, then you’ll just wait a few extra minutes.” Because it’s still on the consideration block, it won’t be live at launch.

Ride Austin is a concept that mayor Steve Adler is on board with. It also will likely come to the chagrin of Uber and Lyft. While some pundits have been quick to blame Austin for stifling innovation, it could also be the exact reality check the ride-sharing economy needed.

Ride Austin launches in the Apple App Store today, with an Android version arriving within the next month. Currently, there are no plans for a Windows app.

Editor’s note: Imad Khan and Joe Deshotel co-host the Left in Texas podcast.

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