On-Demand Services Challenge AAA's Roadside Assistance Program

Jun 1, 2016
Originally published on June 7, 2016 12:20 pm
Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

OK, maybe this has happened to you. You're in your car. You're driving. You get a flat tire. And you are not a member of AAA. That was a situation confronting NPR's Aarti Shahani. And unexpectedly, she discovered this new solution.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Five-thirty a.m., before sunrise - I'm driving to Google to cover their big annual conference. The birds are chirping. Just a handful of cars are on the road. And then suddenly, some jerk left scrap metal dead in the middle of the street. It stabbed my front left tire. I was on a residential street and pulled over. I don't belong to AAA. And when I pull up AAA on my phone to get on board quick, the website says membership takes 48 hours to activate. Of course it does. AAA isn't stupid. They're protecting themselves against people like me - moochers. So I'm stuck. Until, that is...

I am searching for flat tire repair on Google. And the second result - it just popped up - it's called Blink Roadside Assistance. I guess, like, get help in a blink.

It's a nice, professional-looking site with a very short form...

I want flat tire...

...Which I begin to fill.

...And - OK, it's calculating what it's going to charge me. OK, it's going to charge $39. I'm happy with that price. That'll work for me.

Then it makes me put in my credit card - pre-pay. What I'm doing is pretty tech-forward - paying an unknown app to connect me with another human, a stranger, on demand. I'll either get the Uber of roadside assistance or I could end up getting an ax murderer.

Got a croissant from the bakery across the street, may as well enjoy while I'm waiting. One bite into breakfast and my phone rings. Over the next half hour...

Hello, this is Aarti.

...I get three different calls from Blink customer service, from the mechanic who's coming to rescue me and then this automated message.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUTOMATED MESSAGE)

AUTOMATED VOICE: Your service will be provided by Pop-A-Lock. Their phone number is...

SHAHANI: It even gives me the mechanic's cell number. These are all good signs. I put in my order at 6:02 a.m. And by 6:39, this guy shows up.

TONY OSEGUERA: Tony.

SHAHANI: Tony what?

OSEGUERA: Tony Oseguera.

SHAHANI: Oseguera goes to my trunk, which is a scary place with lots of shoes in the way.

OSEGUERA: Should be - OK.

SHAHANI: Yeah.

He gets my spare, jacks up my car. The whole thing's done, spare bolted into place, in less than three minutes. And he's nice enough to diagnose the punctured tire.

OSEGUERA: Didn't even look like it's completely shot. Take that back. There goes a hole in the side wall.

SHAHANI: A handful of apps - Blink, another one called Honk, another, Urgently - they're doing what AAA and insurance companies have long done - building a network of independent auto shops, advertising to customers and sticking their brands on top of it. The difference is they're not requiring loyalty. It's pay-per-flat. I noticed Oseguera is wearing a company T-shirt, not for Blink - for his shop. Turns out he's never even heard of the app - didn't know he was part of it.

OSEGUERA: So it's all online?

SHAHANI: Yeah, the whole thing.

OSEGUERA: I did not know about that. I thought it was only through the insurance companies.

SHAHANI: AAA is well aware of this new crop of on-demand options. And it's influencing their business. The manager who oversees roadside assistance says that in a hundred of the biggest cities, AAA is beginning to offer one-off services - flat tire change, battery recharge, tow. And the company is studying - do today's consumers stop there? Or are they willing to become a member for, say, $12 more? Aarti Shahani, NPR News, Berkeley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.