The driver testing the autonomous vehicle was streaming a TV program at the time of the accident.
SAN FRANCISCO — Limousine operations that serve the San Francisco Bay Area deal with a double-edged challenge of handling some of the most tech savvy clients in the U.S. while choosing and keeping up with the best technology for their fleet businesses.
The area stretching from the Silicon Valley north to Santa Rosa encompasses a vast region that, over the last four decades, is home to the garage where Steve Jobs built his first Apple computer, where the first silicon chip was created and applied, and where multiple generations of computer software, telephony, Internet, dot.com, and social media companies have taken root.
The nine-county urban region, one of the most scenic in the world, is sprawled across the Santa Clara “Silicon” Valley to the south, the San Francisco Peninsula to the west, the East Bay stretching to the Central Valley, and the North Bay, including the Marin Peninsula and wine regions of Sonoma and Napa. About 7.5 million residents live in and around three major cities, each with its own airport: San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose.
Five major bridges spanning the Bay — Golden Gate, Richmond-San Rafael, San Francisco-Oakland Bay, San Mateo and Dumbarton — add to the challenges of chauffeured transportation companies serving technology companies and clients spread up out of Silicon Valley and around the Bay like sparkling fairy dust.
And of course this birthplace of 24/7 wireless content and connectivity naturally is the home of Uber and Limos.com, which each in its own way is reshaping the chauffeured transportation industry. Uber in particular is posing regulatory and competitive challenges not foreseen just a few years ago.
A varied mix of operators visited by LCT in August may specialize in various niches and be located in distinct local areas, but they all must constantly revaluate what works best in this competitive environment as they try new ideas and approaches.
Rapid airport service
At Angel Worldwide Transportation in Castro Valley, operator Goldie Bhullar positions the company to be flexible and competitive in a 24/7 tech world. His company is situated in a yellow colonial-style two-story house near the intersection of the 238, 580 and 880 freeways. In light traffic, chauffeurs can be at the Oakland International Airport in seven minutes. Angel advertises its service on lighted placard ads at baggage carousels and maintains a direct phone line in the baggage terminal. The service draws additional airport runs.
Bhullar sees signs of Uber trying to compete with limousine service as one to two car operators sit near airports and wait for rides. “Uber has taken over all of San Francisco. Younger workers are more oriented to Uber on smartphones. But if something goes wrong, people get away from them.”
Uber won’t provide the best service nor incur much customer loyalty, since users seldom look for an individual driver. “Limousines still have the safety and service edge,” he says.
iPhone and Android apps are particularly useful for companies that handle reservations, since clients can opt to communicate via texts and e-mails, Bhullar says. Angel Worldwide also uses on-board cameras, GPS navigation, fleet tracking, and Limo Anywhere software.
Apps not apt?
At Pure Luxury Limousine of Petaluma, about 30 minutes north of San Francisco, 60% of its business is related to the Sonoma Valley wine country nearby. That gives the company a 60% corporate and 40% retail mix for its 100 chauffeured vehicles and buses.
Operator Gary Buffo recently switched the company to Motorola Admiral smartphones, which provide the most accurate GPS service the company has ever used.
“The car-mounted GPS has not worked well and it’s never been accurate for us,” Buffo says. “When we switched to the [Sprint] smartphone, it was completely accurate. The mapping software is phenomenal.”
Pure Luxury runs hands-free technology in all of its vehicles, with chauffeurs able to communicate via BlueTooth when no clients are in the vehicles, and dispatchers able to track all fleet moves via GPS fleet tracking, Buffo says.
Buffo remains skeptical of current apps on the market because the ones he has tried failed. “We’ve used two [programs] and did tests with a customer app, and it did not work, period.” Buffo says. “There were so many flaws, so many issues.”
Apps work properly if backed by the proper investments and top-rate technology. Chauffeured transportation operators need apps that work perfectly all the time, Buffo says. “Until someone can invest the millions that’s needed, you’re not going to get a perfect solution for customers. We just don’t have the money to invest as an industry [for an app] that the customer or chauffeur can use on a daily basis.”
Buffo has installed an app blocker on Pure Luxury’s company smartphones, with only supervisors able to add apps to the smartphones to prevent chauffeurs from using non-company related apps.
Trekking with tech
Toward the southern end of the Bay Area, Mosaic Global Transportation, which has seen 40% growth since December 2011, runs 23 company-owned vehicles with a network of smaller regional affiliates. Located in Redwood City, off U.S. 101 between San Francisco and San Jose, the company is ideally situated to serve the two global tech hubs.
Apple, Google, Facebook, Zinga, Yahoo, Synopsis, AT&T, Marriott, Toyota, the 49ers and major league baseball are among Mosaic’s top clients.
The company recently transitioned to the elite Livery Coach software, which can automate communications between clients and the company, including confirmations and receipts, while chauffeurs can update clients and dispatchers alike with statuses.
“People expect so much information quickly,” says Rhonda Brewster, COO of Mosaic, who co-owns and runs the company with her husband, Maurice, the President and CEO. “They want information quickly, efficiently and with a high level of service.”
The system eliminates most phone calls, with even affiliates able to communicate directly on smartphones, tablets and laptops, Maurice Brewster says. The company also has a web-link that functions like an app for clients. Mosaic requires a minimum four hours for a reservation.
So far, Uber has not eaten much into limousine service requests, since it competes more on the taxi level, Rhonda Brewster says. Maurice adds that Uber cannot meet the full demand in San Francisco, as there are not enough vehicles available in certain time frames when customers need to leave hotels and get to airports. That makes a reservation-based, pre-arranged chauffeured ride still the best solution given the uncertainty of whether a taxicab or Uber sedan actually shows up when you need it during morning/evening rush hours, he says.
Priority on tech
Technology must be a major priority for chauffeured transportation companies since it’s a major criteria component of RFPs from corporate clients, Brewster says. One client he deals with gives it a 20% weight, or 20 out of 100 points, when scoring a chauffeured vehicle service for potential business. “Every RFP now has some kind of a technology segment,” he says.
To enhance its tech image, Mosaic this year has bought two 2013 Lincoln MKT Town Cars with at least two more on the way. The new Lincoln MKT offers a big technology “wow factor,” with its plug-ins and Wi-Fi potential, Maurice Brewster says. Silicon Valley clients tend to be low key, preferring a practical, understated approach that is not image oriented, Rhonda adds.
Visual vehicles & talking shuttles
At Gateway Limousines Worldwide in Burlingame, close to San Francisco International Airport, operators Sam Amato, Rich Azzolino and Joel Amato put a priority on onboard cameras, for safety and as a useful chauffeur training tool. The trio runs one of the largest chauffeured operations in the Bay Area, which was started in 1979.
Chauffeurs comprise teams that compete with each other each quarter for points based on driving performance and service excellence, says James Lilley, director of chauffeur development at Gateway. Another innovation Gateway is testing is chauffeur iPads, which can be used to communicate as well as for client greeting signs at airports.
Gateway also is implementing the scripted “talking bus” that automatically updates shuttle riders on stop points, points of interest, and helpful instructions, Lilley says. About 25% to 30% of the company’s revenues come from various bus-related services.
As for Uber, Sam and Joel Amato believe it is more suited for short distance runs, and not for longer trips and A/Ds, the staples of traditional chauffeured service. An Uber system for the limousine industry would only work if all companies had the same livery system, or compatible systems, and all operations and chauffeurs were interconnected via smartphones and tablets, Sam Amato says.
It is impractical for chauffeured service providers to set aside a certain number of fleet vehicles as “floaters,” hoping to get an Uber prompt, he adds.
Gateway coordinates all of its runs around the Bay in an advanced dispatch center with a network of digital flat screen displays tied into GPS fleet tracking, flight tracking, area traffic information, and live status updates on runs, all of which can be accessed remotely.
The company is planning on offering an app that connects with its software and runs as an extension of e-mail for clients who want details and chauffeur information in real time. Gateway sees about a 50/50 split between online and phone reservations, with the website fully accommodating e-mails.
“Technology will definitely cut labor costs and make things more efficient,” Sam Amato says.
The driver testing the autonomous vehicle was streaming a TV program at the time of the accident.
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