CES 2016: where the biggest innovation may be Uber

Molly Wood Jan 8, 2016

Let’s be honest, there wasn’t much out-and-out innovation on display at CES this year. The tech industry is in what you could call an “iterative stage,” characterized by next steps in mobile apps, or the cloud or software, rather than big leaps into uncharted territory.

Even so, sometimes the arrival of an innovation from the past is as good or better than anything CES has to offer for the future. I’m talking about Lyft and Uber, which pulled into Las Vegas in time for CES 2016, and not a moment too soon.

For CES veterans, both willing and unwilling, one of the most time-honored and painful traditions is The Cab Line. (Proper noun intended.)

It can be an hours-long ordeal for the throngs of show-goers waiting outside the Las Vegas Convention Center—in a state of near semi-consciousness–for cabs to take them to the next venue. At the big casinos and hotels, the odds of hitting a jackpot on the slots can often seem better than those of getting a cab. Hotel doormen have become skilled at dealing calmly with would-be passengers asking for the 10th time if the cab has actually been called.

And the lines were just the beginning. For years, cabs wouldn’t take credit cards, or if they did you’d get slapped with a $3  “convenience” fee. (That still happens.) Drivers would both refuse passengers for short fares, and cut short the longer ones by dumping you out at the curb a mile before the Convention Center to avoid a traffic jam.  And those are just a few of the things that made Uber and Lyft such a welcome change for passengers. 

But Vegas didn’t make it easy. It’s a cab town, and the taxi industry is worth close to $300 million a year, by some estimates. The so-called taxi cartel employed every trick it could to keep ride-sharing companies off the Strip, and Lyft and Uber couldn’t operate legally in Vegas until fall of 2015, just a few months before CES. 

The companies’ arrival has clearly changed transportation around Las Vegas hotels — many now have signs noting where Lyft and Uber pickups can happen. And the apps themselves work slightly differently in Las Vegas—they let you specify pickup areas, either a certain spot at a hotel or, in the case of the Las Vegas Convention Center, in a special pickup zone just outside one of the halls. Oh, and the two companies actually cut their prices ahead of the convention, and Uber was offering free WiFi to some convention-goers.

The effects were noticeable: on my first night in Las Vegas, I took a cab from the airport, and arrived at my hotel to see a startlingly long line of cabs and no passengers. When I asked why so many were there, my driver told me, “It’s because Uber is here now. Lyft is here. Everything is terrible.” No comment, man.

But the big question ahead of the show, which draws about 180,000 people to Las Vegas, was whether Uber and Lyft could measurably decrease the amount of traffic around the Strip, the Convention Center, and the various hotels that host CES-related events. To that, my anecdotal answer is emphatically “no.” For one thing, there’s just not that much you can do to more efficiently ferry that many people around a small geographic area, especially when most of them are traveling around the same time. 

It seemed clear that lots of convention-goers didn’t realize Lyft or Uber were options, and most funneled themselves automatically into cab lines. Traffic didn’t seem noticeably diminished, and I certainly didn’t see languishing cabs,  while happy conventioneers whizzed by in Lyft rides. 

I decided to see whether taking an Uber would be an improvement, and my schedule provided the perfect opportunity. I had to go from the Convention Center to the Sands, about a two-mile trip. During peak CES, it can take 20 to 30 minutes—and that’s on top of the 30 minutes it can take to just find a cab in the middle of the day. 

Enter Uber. I fired up the app. It immediately recognized my location at the convention center and notified me that my pickup location would be the “Bronze lot” near the South Hall.

My driver immediately called me and told me he was in the lot, but I didn’t really know where it was. It took some doing to find it, and for my driver to get out of the lot because one of the exits was blocked off. No one is making it easy for the new rides in town. But we figured it out.

My driver told me he used to be a limo driver. Now he drove for Uber and Lyft. He picked me up in a new Ford Escape that didn’t reek of cigarette smoke—the official scent of Las Vegas. There were no obtrusive touch screens blaring ads for casino shows, and he wasn’t complaining about the traffic. Well, ok, maybe a little. 

He took a back route to the Sands, dropped me and my audio engineer off clean as a whistle . I hopped out. There was no credit card swiping—or “convenience fee.” No waiting on a receipt. It was far and away the most pleasant transit experience I had in Vegas (although I have to admit that talking to Vegas cabbies is one my my time-honored traditions, because they’re often a friendly, knowledgeable and interesting bunch—except when they’re not). 

Total cost: $5. My cheapest cab ride all week was $14. 

But that was it. Apologies in advance to the expense department, but in four days on the ground I never called another Lyft or Uber. Perhaps I got lucky, there were always cabs when I needed them. Or perhaps, by forcing Uber and Lyft to pick up passengers in parking lot Siberia, the taxi lobby had simply made it easier for me to go with the path of least resistance: the good old Cab Line. Let’s just say mobility in Vegas, is in its “iterative” stage.

Listen to my audio diary of Ubering around Vegas in the audio player below. 

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