Road Warrior

Car service app seeks to disrupt the disruptors with permits

Harriet Baskas, Special to CNBC
Green Tomato Cars enters the alternative taxi market in Washington, D.C., with eco-friendly, Wi-Fi equipped, app-dispatched cars.
Source: Green Tomato Cars

Claiming it will "disrupt the disrupters," Green Tomato Cars, which calls itself an eco-friendly car service and has found success in London, plans to go up against Uber, Lyft and other app-dispatched, ride-share companies offering an alternative to traditional taxis in the Washington, D.C.,market.

Besides the quirky name, the company hopes to stand out by offering reserved rides, transparent pricing and Wi-Fi-equipped hybrid vehicles.

Noting that the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles recently sent Uber and Lyft cease and desist letters, and that those companies, and others, are dealing with regulatory hurdles in California and some other states, Green Tomato also boasts that it is legal.

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"We're different in that we own the cars. They're commercially insured and our contract drivers—we call them ambassadors—are fully trained and have undergone rigorous background checks," founder and Vice President Jonny Goldstone told CNBC.

With a pool of potential customers who are "thoughtful, well-educated consumers, interested in the environment and quite demanding in terms of service expectations," D.C. was Green Tomato's first pick for expansion because it was the closest fit to the London market, said Goldstone.

Paris will be the next city to get Green Tomato Cars, with Chicago, Boston and San Francisco under consideration.

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"What they will need to do in order to compete," with services such as Uber, Lyft and Sidecar, is "offer a great user experience on the app; scale to other cities quickly and be able to offer on-demand service," said PhoCusWright research analyst Maggie Rauch. "A pricing promise could be very appealing, too, as the biggest player, Uber, has managed to confuse and anger consumers with some of their surge pricing policies."

Green Tomato has 500 vehicles serving London, where competitors include Addison Lee and Uber. In Washington, Green Tomato's fleet currently has just 25 cars, but that number should triple by the fall, said Goldstone.

Until it does, the company is not serving all of area, but focusing on providing a licensed, bookable service to and from Dulles International, Reagan National and Baltimore Washington International airports with a published menu of competitive fares. Despite the Virginia DMV statewide cease and desist orders, Uber and Lyft continue to serve the market.

"We are in productive discussions with the Virginia Commonwealth government on an ongoing basis, and continue to operate as usual. Riders can enjoy Uber trips to and from any Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority airport," Uber's Taylor Bennett told CNBC via email.

"We are continuing to work with state officials to craft new rules for this new industry," Lyft spokeswoman Chelsea Wilson said via email. "In terms of airport operations, we are also continuing productive and collaborative conversations to come to a solution that preserves a way forward for this community-powered transportation movement."

Neither company would comment on the service Green Tomato Cars provides to the D.C.-area airports, but airports authority sokeswoman Kimberly Gibbs said that, like other jurisdictions around the country, it is studying the "expanding ground transportation landscape" for ways to incorporate new technologies "while ensuring customer safety, satisfaction and experience."

Gibbs said if a company is authorized to operate in Virginia, it can operate at the Dulles and Regan National airports. If not, "they could be ticketed."

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—By Harriet Baskas, special to Baskas is the author of "Hidden Treasures: What Museums Can't or Won't Show You," and the Stuck at the Airport blog. Follow her on Twitter at @hbaskas. Follow Road Warrior at @CNBCtravel.