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Uber takes U-turn, lets riders schedule trips in advance

Passengers will be able to schedule a ride up to 30 days in advance, a reversal of Uber's long-held attitude that it is an on-demand service. 

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An Uber car in San Francisco in May 2015. Passengers will soon be able to pre-schedule rides.

Robert Galbraith/Reuters

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Passport, check. Toothbrush, check. Scheduled Uber pickup, check.

The ride-hailing company announced that users on their way to the airport, or in need of any pre-scheduled ride, will be able to reserve one up to 30 days in advance. The service started Thursday in Seattle, the home of Microsoft, and will expand to other “top business travel cities,” Uber wrote on its blog.

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Uber is not the first ride-hailing service to offer this feature. Lyft announced in May it has started to test a similar program in San Francisco, while Gett has offered scheduled-ahead service for more than a year where it operates, USA Today reported.

As these companies upend the taxi and limousine industries, Uber’s announcement shows that it, Lyft, and Gett have found that they shouldn’t discard too many taxi and limo features in the name of “on-demand.”    

“Even though we’re an on-demand company, we totally get it,” Tom Fallows, Uber’s director of global experiences, told Wired.com. “Sometimes you just want that extra reassurance that your Uber will be there when you want to leave.”

Through Uber’s new feature, a user will be able to schedule a ride 30 minutes to 30 days in advance. The feature will be offered to start just through Uber X, its less expensive, private vehicle option. A user can cancel any time before their ride is on its way, at no cost to them. Pre-scheduling won’t impact drivers, who will not be able to match with riders ahead of time, according to The Boston Globe. And users won’t be able to avoid surge pricing, in which the cost of a ride climbs at peak hours, either.

Schedule-ahead service is a reversal of Uber’s long-held stance about how, and when, it serves its customers.

“Uber is an on-demand service,” it writes on its website, on a page titled “Can I make a reservation?” “Use the Uber app to request a trip when you’re ready to ride. There’s no need to make a reservation in advance.”

Travis Kalanick, Uber’s chief executive, reaffirmed this mindset in September, when he spoke one-on-one with Salesforce CEO Mark Benioff at the cloud computing company’s Dreamforce conference.

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“Do you schedule time with your shower?” said Mr. Kalanick, when asked by Mr. Benioff if Uber would introduce scheduled rides, reported Forbes.

And yet, ever since it started six years ago, Uber said it has received requests from customers for pre-scheduled rides  “so they can rest assured that an Uber will be available when they need it, even if it’s for a 4 a.m. ride to the airport,” wrote Uber in Thursday’s blog post.

Taxis and limos have long offered schedule-ahead services. In fact, it’s a foundation of the limousine industry. Gett, which operates in Europe, Russia, Israel, and New York City, recognized this when it launched the service more than a year ago. Lyft was next. It started to pilot service in San Francisco about two weeks ago, and plans to expand it to other cities sometime this summer, reported PC Magazine. Lyft, though, will allow users to reserve a ride up to 24 hours in advance, compared to up to 30 days through Uber.

Uber introduced pre-scheduling in part to keep up with its rivals. Yet it’s also an indication that ride-hailing companies are learning they can’t do away with too much of the traditional model.   

“If you want to really, truly upend the market, then you have to focus on perfecting the tools people use to create change,” wrote Kevin Harrington, the inventor of the infomercial, in a Forbes article. “In the end, companies don’t upend markets – customers do.”