Thursday, June 20, 2013

Flywheel at the Town Hall

Ever since Flywheel took over Cabulous six months ago, they've done wonders marketing and expanding the use of their product. A faithful core of customers has begun to use the app. Many people are switching back to taxis from Uber.

However, Flywheel has started pursuing policies that are undermining its successful flourish. One of these is its insistence on only accepting payment through its app on smartphones and refusing to take cash. Another is its draconian practice of holding drivers out of service if they cancel a ride for any reason whatsoever - despite the fact that a major reason for such cancellations is the inaccuracy of the app's GPS system.

The new management also has an attitude problem.
  • When Flywheel came to sign up drivers at Desoto, one young recruiter kept nervously calling everybody "man" and adopting an antiquated, hip lingo whenever he spoke to a driver. He obviously thought that he needed to speak to us in our native, ghetto tongue because we wouldn't be able to understand English.
  • I spoke to another recruiter about being shut off their system for a week. "It's because you've been bad," he said. He was only half joking.
  • When Flywheel announced their nixing of non smarphone payment options, they claimed they'd done surveys of both customers and drivers, and that everbody enthusiastically embraced the idea. I met one of the women who did the survey and she said that, yes, most of the customers liked the idea. But nobody did a driver survey. If they had, they would've found out that 80% of the drivers like the cash option. Does Flywheel believe that we're so stupid that they can tell us what we think?
In sum, Flywheel is being run as an top-down organization that treats cab drivers less like customers than like the students at the Catholic Military High School (appropriately named "Cretin") that I (left photo) got myself thrown out of fifty years ago.

On top of this, the app has features that make it difficult to use. Instead of automatically calculating the price of the ride, the driver has to punch in the figures. This slows everything down and naturally leads to mistakes. Furthermore, the customer interface is not intuitive. Many of my passengers have trouble figuring out how to call or send a message to the driver. This can be a major problem because of the aforementioned GPS inaccuracy. I once was given an address at 1800 Divisadero when the order was actually at 2700 Sutter - four blocks away; five if you take one-way streets into account. This was their most spectacular miscalculation but major errors are common. 

I called up Director Chris Hayashi and, without going into too much detail, told her that there were problems with the app and asked her if she could arrange a sit-down meeting with Flywheel's brain thrust. What I had in mind was something like the ballpark workshop. What we got instead was Vice President of Marketing Jason Dewillers (lead photo).

At the Town Hall

Hmm, I made that sound like a put down, didn't I? Not fair. Vice President Dewillers was articulate, personable and well spoken. He listened carefully to the opinions of people in the room. He also told us that Flywheel had already corrected a major problem with the app. Kudos.

Dewillers actually agrees with cab drivers that Flywheel should allow a cash pay option. Unfortunately, he said that he was voted down on this by the majority of their board. So, as much as I enjoyed his presentation, I would have preferred talking with the board members who are anti-cash.

Why not talk to them now?
  • Regular Flywheel customers have told me that they are going to quit using your app even though they like the service because of the anti-cash dictum. Some are people in cash businesses like waitressing or bartending. Others don't want every transaction in their lives tracked.
  • The customers I talked with were more than willing to pay you a fee for the use of the app. So all you'd have to do is put a credit card on file and charge them for the ride no matter which option they choose.
  • There are also drivers who only want to accept cash. Of course, there is a potential problem of a driver insisting on cash from a customer who wants to pay via the app but I can see two solutions for this:
    • Have the app notate how the rider wants to pay when the order is put out.
    • Put the driver out of service if he or she accepts a ride with the auto pay option and later insists on Cash.
Flywheel certainly has no difficulty holding people out of service. Dewillers told us that he turned the app off for two customers who'd paid cash and two drivers who had demanded to be paid in cash. Indeed, they almost cut me off. 

For some reason (possibly a miscue by me) the app wouldn't allow me to put the figures in for a ride. No matter what I tried, the app would not flip to the input page. I finally cancelled the ride and took cash. The next morning, I listened to a voice mail where a young Flywheel techie threatened to fire me.

Is this a workable economic model?
  • Is it wise to limit the number of your customers and drivers that use the app?  Especially when your company is trying to gain market share.
  • Is it smart to turn down cash when it would give you a competitive edge on Lyft, Sidecar and Uber?
  • I've been using the Cabulous/Flywheel app since it came out and I've probably taken as many orders as anyone. I've also talked several hundred of my passengers into trying your service. Do you really want to rid yourselves of drivers like me because we take cash once in a while?

As irritating as the "no cash"policy is to many drivers, this annoyance is minor compared to their feelings about Flywheel's punitive urges. At one point, Dewillers wistfully spoke of Lyft's ability to discipline their drivers, forgetting that Lyfters have little choice for making money except taking dispatched orders.

My feeling on this subject is that there are no end of venues for discipline in San Francisco and that Flywheel brain-thrusters would be better off availing themselves of these services than threatening taxi drivers who, if they'd think about it, are their most essential customers.

A number of taxi drivers won't even consider trying the app because of Flywheel's punitive policies. Others, like myself, are simply using the app less frequently. I'm not going to take a call unless I'm certain that the GPS won't lead me into gridlock.

Almost all drivers want Flywheel to modify its decree. The most popular idea is to have a time limit where the driver can cancel the ride without penalty. The passenger has two minutes to cancel. Giving the driver one minute to do so would probably solve most of the difficulties. However, it appeared to me that Dewillers wasn't interested in this solution.

To be fair, taxicabs create a problem for app makers that Lyft, Sidecar and Uber don't pose. The so-called NOETS do steal flags from time to time, but they make far more money by taking dispatched orders. With taxis, whether a call is better than a flag depends on the situation. What an app maker (or anybody trying to build up a dispatching service) does not want are too many drivers taking orders then canceling, which loses business.

In my opinion, the best solution is the one-minute cancellation option coupled with creating a culture of drivers who realize that taking orders builds up the business and thus, in the long run, makes them more money. As it turns out Dewillers had a different solution in mind at the Town Hall which, needless to say, he didn't bother to discuss with us.

What's wrong with it?

When I went to work last Tuesday, the Flywheel app was no longer giving cross streets. It simply gave the complete address of the order.

This is what happens when you put a gaggle of geeks in a room who know technology but don't fully understand the complexities of the problem to which they are applying it. I'm sure they thought they'd come up with a brilliant and elegant solution. It takes care of the GPS difficulties while allowing Flywheel to maintain its culture of punishment.

"Elegant" and "brilliant,"  are not the words that popped into my mind when I realized what Flywheel had done, and the ones that did are better left unsaid. This "solution" is bad on so many levels that I don't where to begin. Let's start with first idea that pops into my head:
  • A certain type of driver will decline the order then rush to pick it up anyway and make the customer pay cash.
    • This will create no-goes for the drivers who take the orders and annoy many of the customers.
    • And, Flywheel won't even know who did it: they won't even know who to chastise.
  • It doesn' t actually cure the GPS accuracy problem. It makes it worse. The GPS often gives the wrong address. At least we used to have some idea of what neighborhood the order was in. Now there's no clue. 
  • Asperger's syndrome geniuses may be more common in the taxi business than in other professions but there still are probably less than two dozen San Francisco cab drivers who can match up street numbers with cross streets for the entire city.
    • So many streets start off at angles from Market or Columbus and the like that is little uniformity in the numbers.
    • It's difficult to remember where the numbers on minor streets start or finish.
    • It's hard to know where many alleys are without the cross streets.
  • Of course I do know where the numbers are on many major cross streets so I can tell you that 1700 Vallejo crosses Franklin and that 3000 Baker is close to Chestnut. But what are the numbers at Vallejo & Baker and where is 1800 Baker?
    • I count 11 (or is it 12) streets between Franklin & Baker so it's 2800 or 2900 Vallejo.
    • I had an order on 1800 Baker and guessed Pine for the cross when it was actually California. One block wasn't much of a difference in this case, but it could've been if it was a one-way street.
  • I suppose that doing arithmetic all night could be a good method for fighting off Alzheimer's but is it something I want to do or should be doing when I'm driving a cab?
  • Knowing the cross streets is essential. It determines the routes that a diver can take at various times of day. It means getting to an order faster and easier.
  • Giving the cross streets is supposed to be a function of a taxi app. Are we supposed to use our own GPS to discover where the numbers are?
Flywheel doesn't have worry about firing me.

I'm about to fly off on my own. I'm pretty much done with them. They've accomplished the almost impossible feat of alienating one of their biggest supporters - me. I've made a living for thirty years without their app. I don't need the aggravation.

From now on, I'll only take orders when I know exactly where they are, and I'll blow off the rest. And, the ride will have to be very close because I won't know whether some other driver is already racing to it or not. Currently, I don't accept hails longer than 5 minutes away downtown and 8 minutes away in the neighborhoods. I'll probably cut that time in half.

One thing is certain: I hope that Hayashi changes her mind about making Flywheel and Taxi Magic the only games in town. Talk about being between a rock and hard place! Taxi Magic doesn't even have tracking and the biggest company supporting their app charges their drivers a fee to use it. Does the Director of Taxis Services actually expect these guys to make San Francisco cabs competitive with Uber?

I think it's essential to leave the field open to other apps so that we can bring in a company that has the brains to develop their software in conjunction with the people who use it. Then we'll finally have a taxi app that both customers and cab drivers will want to use.


  1. David K

    4:14 AM (10 hours ago)

    I have decided not to use flywheel in the future. I used to promote the service but the payment option by accepting through app made me think again. There are a lot of people want to use the app but do not have credit card or don't want to use credit cards.
    Another factor is I had a few incidents that I did not get the cancellation notice and drove to the pick up location. After waited for a long time and found out the app had freezes or crashed.
    Another issue that is the problem is flywheel trying to boss drivers around. I was blocked for a week for a cancellation after customer mentioned that they were at different location than the app showed.
    Flywheel needs to change their way of business and needs to treat the drivers with respect. We might be cab drivers but we are well educated people working according to rules and regulations.
    I had to go to the flywheel office to learn how to type in the amount which is ridiculous since an elementary school kid can do it. Time is what we cannot buy and regain.
    If the company wants to be successful and to be able to compete with others, Flywheel needs to change their attitude towards the customers and improve the system.

    David Khan

  2. I let customers pay through the app, even though I usually get less of a tip, but if they hand me cash, I simply punch in zero for the fare. I don't believe it's legal to not accept cash for a cab ride. It's one thing to require us to accept credit cards, it's quite another to tell us we can't accept cash! They're getting their $1 per trip and should be happy with that.

    I think the city should only allow one app, and it should be Hailo, which is the only one sophisticated enough to compete with Uber etc. They also treat cabdrivers with reverence.

  3. Barry you are the man.. and a trusted leader along with Ed...
    Drivers need a first rate app ... people who run these cab companies it seems are un enlightened people who will be swept aside unless they use their brains and hire a good consultant to figure out a world class app for the drivers . The dispatch model of each company building dispatch service is gonna be pushed aside cab companies will provide mechanics, insurance, vehicles , and manage labor.

    Smart phones are a game changing technology akin to the cross bow making knights in shining armor obsolete.Cab companies should be happy their drivers can get money anyway they can to pay the gates.It is in the cab companies interest that drivers have a world class app to help the drivers to get money to pay the gates.The big cab companies should band together to hire a good consultant and create an app with Hyashi's help as it appears she is the only person with enough wits to see what is happening down there.
    If a good app isn't provided , as drivers make less money , industry will have hard time finding workers to pay for gates and will implode.

  4. This punishment culture attitude is the direct byproduct of the deep rooted biases against cab drivers. According to them, drivers are in the low-end of the food chain to begin with...they need to be disciplined. Oy!

    These startup neo-nazis not only talk down to drivers and actually believe that they are superior...thus we can punish you.

    However, these "superior" object-c writers and their we-are-so-cool-we-cant-stand-it decision makers forget the obvious...drivers don't grow on trees.

    Who will drive then ? you ?

    I use some of the other apps, they all do the same. The "rating" method is so arbitrary, don't get me started. Uber X has rides that are 3-4 miles away. Right.

    So, I get my own clients from rides (flags/hotels/et al) Passengers are impressed that I can articulate complete sentences. Who knew ? Thus, I have a long list of regulars, and for those who are here on vacation or work. They get "superior service" (if no pun pun-ishment) for the time they are here. So i bypass the app pimps and pocket the change.

  5. i dont know why everybody is so excited about these apps,whatever happened to good ol voice dispatch system.
    let me explain it,customer calls a cab co,dispatcher sends order on the air and whomever is closest takes it,then driver and customer can figure out the payment option as perfectly reasonable adults,very simple indeed.
    i never used any app and never will,if they get their way and become the only game in town they'll turn us into slaves,amd we'll have to abide by their arrogant and ignorant rules and adhere to their every whim
    please drivers think hard about these apps,they're just one more way for the elites to enslave the sheeple.
    when u use dispatch youre supporting people working for the industry,when u use the apps you're basicaly supporting wall street.
    besides isnt dangerous and illegal to be mingling with the phone while driving...
    just my 2cents...

    1. Right on!
      I could not have said better.

    2. I liked playing the radio and stretching and all that cool stuff, but really I forget the number but it's like 50-50 people even got picked up when they call a cab, especially on Friday night, one of the reason the apps got going is the people were not being served efficiently. First thing we must do to fix a problem is acknowledge our weaknesses...

    3. you're just repeating what the companies have been deceitfully lamenting for 30 years.
      in reality if and when you get a fare to the sunset or elsewhere at 2am on a fri or sat you're pretty much screwed because by the time you get back,the city get cleaned out pretty quickly.
      from my experience passengers wait an average 20 min at the most.maybe 25 on fri/sat nites
      if our strenght would mean to have a zillion cabs on the streets ready to take on orders within the second its put on the air and fighting each other for crumbs them i'll take "our weaknesses" any day.

  6. If Flywheel doesn't want people to use cash, it should remove that option from its screen. Punishing drivers for operating their system as their programming allows it to be used is, simply, weird. Some of my customers watch the transaction with interest, and when they see that there is a way for them to pay cash if they want, or for them to use a different credit card than the one they signed up to Flywheel with, they want that option. It is not my job to enforce Flywheel policy. I will not by preference give my customers fewer options than they see are available to them. If Flywheel wants to run its own operations differently, then it should do the necessary programming. Punishing drivers is really VERY odd. They just don't seem to get it. They need us more than we need them.

    It really is the height of offensiveness for Flywheel to actively, and severely, PUNISH drivers: WE ARE THE CUSTOMERS!

    Where does Flywheel get the idea that customers are told they "have been bad?" They are just one more faction, like the MTA Board in fact, who think they know better than do those of us actually in the field.

    What is Flywheel, really, that they can afford such an attitude?

    Flywheel is coming from some kind of fantasy world, where cab drivers are quasi-illiterate and have to be spoken to with hip ghetto language. I did notice that myself, so I agree with you, Ed.