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Cambridge sues to overturn state OK of Uber livery service

The City of Cambridge is suing to overturn the state’s ruling allowing Uber, maker of a smartphone app that people use for private car transportation, to continue operating despite complaints from traditional taxi services.

A Massachusetts agency in August initially ordered Uber to cease operations, contending that its system of determining fares based on GPS-location technology was untested. The agency, the Massachusetts Division of Standards, then abruptly reversed itself after an outcry from users and others in the local tech sector reached a sympathetic Governor Deval Patrick.

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Now Cambridge, which originally tried to halt the service in May, has filed a complaint in Middlesex Superior Court, contending that the state ruling allowing Uber to continue was “unsupported by substantial evidence, arbitrary and capricious,” and “an abuse of discretion.”

“The taxi industry is heavily regulated for reasons of public safety, consumer protection, and fair competition,” said Cambridge city attorney Elizabeth Lashway. “To allow Uber to sidestep the applicable laws and regulations goes against those principles.”

A spokesman for the Patrick administration, Jason Lefferts, declined to comment on the Cambridge challenge except to say, “We are confident that at the end of this process everyone will have a better understanding of this technology, and how it can be properly applied by businesses and best used by consumers.”

Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick said he expects the Cambridge suit to fail.

“Courts give deference to administrative bodies such as the division of standards,” Kalanick said. “Our customers are very happy with our service. We’re not getting any complaints to speak of.”

Uber styles itself as “Everyone’s Private Driver” with an app that allows passengers to summon a ride in one of its sleek, high-end, black sedans or sport utility vehicles. The app uses a metering system based on GPS-location technology to calculate fares based on time, distance, and speed.

Cambridge mounted a sting operation against Uber last May and cited the San Francisco-based company for using a nonconforming measuring device for calculating fares and for operating an unlicensed livery. Unlike with a traditional taxi meter, some government officials say they have no way of knowing whether Uber’s system is accurate and is not overcharging people.

Uber appealed the Cambridge citation on the nonconforming device to the Massachusetts standards division.

On Aug. 1, the division ruled that because there are no established technical standards for measuring the accuracy of GPS technology in smartphones for commercial transactions, Uber must cease operation.

Uber fans revolted with a strongly worded petition and hostile Twitter and blogging campaigns criticizing the ruling, casting it as an attack on the kind of innovation that fuels Massachusetts’ technology economy. Patrick’s staff caught wind of the fracas and said the administration would review the situation.

A Patrick spokesman, Brendan Ryan, responded to Uber fans with his own tweet at the time: “full disclosure: @uber_bos very popular in @massgovernor office. I used it last night to get home from springsteen,” he wrote, referring to the rock musician’s concert at Fenway Park in August.

That was soon followed by the Division of Standards’s reversal. Deputy director Charles Carroll said the government had since learned that the technology Uber uses is “currently under review for the development of standards by the National Institute of Standards and Technology,” and in the interim would allow the company to operate.

The process for developing standards for the Uber technology could take several years, according to Don Onwiler, executive director of the National Conference of Weights and Measures, which develops uniform weights and measure standards for local regulators.

Founded in 2009, Uber now operates in several major cities besides Boston, including Chicago, Los Angeles, and Denver, often drawing complaints from rival taxi services who say it has an unfair advantage because it is not as regulated as cabs. In Boston, Uber currently charges about $33 for a sedan ride from Downtown to Harvard Square. A regular taxi ride for this trip would run about $22. Uber also warns customers that, “At times of intense demand, our rates change over time to keep vehicles available.”

Massachusetts isn’t the only place Uber is battling regulators. In Washington, D.C., city officials are allowing Uber to operate while considering a request from the District’s taxicab commission to more closely regulate the service; in New York, the Taxi and Limousine Commission said it has not authorized the adoption of any Uber-type apps, although Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said he is eager to see them in action on city streets.

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