Love them or hate them, Silicon Valley types have the ability to work miracles. Sure, they may use buzzwords like “synergy” and “freemium,” and you may want to punch them right in their perfect glimmering teeth. But you can't deny that, upon occasion, they make magic happen. Uber is a great example.
Luxe Valet is a similar app that allows users to conjure personal valet parkers on demand. It was founded last year by an all-star team of experienced San Francisco developers from Zynga, Tesla and Groupon. A so-called “Big Kids” startup, it raised $5.5 million in seed money from blue-chip angel investors like Google Ventures, Sherpa Ventures, and Lightspeed, and it's not hard to see why. It coordinates a mind-numbingly complicated dance of valets, garages, keys and vehicles, relying on an algorithm that shifts them around the city like smartphone controlled chess pieces.
After a six-month beta period in San Francisco, Luxe began service in Santa Monica early this year. It soon crawled down to Venice, then jumped over to downtown. Just last week it opened its fourth "zone" in Hollywood. At a shockingly reasonable $5 an hour, $15 maximum, it costs less than some parking meters.
Currently available only for Apple's mobile devices, the interface looks and feels remarkably similar to Uber. A map appears. If you are inside the zone of coverage, you can “REQUEST LUXE?” If you are not, a bubble reads “GO TO NEAREST ZONE.”
Once inside the zone, you drop a pin on your destination and watch as a cluster of blue stick figures scramble towards the flag. Then a pop-up window appears introducing you to your valet.
Luxe requires a few more steps than Uber, however. You have to set the destination where you want a valet to meet you — and if you want the valet to be waiting when you arrive, you should do it before you leave the house, suggests Hans Yang, Luxe’s director of L.A. operations. You meet your valet, and, as you’re handing him the keys, he asks when you want the car back. Guided by his own version of the app, he then brings your car to a Luxe partner garage and uses the app to open a Bluetooth enabled safe, secured to a wall inside the garage, where the keys are stored.
Fifteen minutes before your predicted retrieval time, you receive a text suggesting you request the car, so it will be ready when you need it. A valet gets your car from the garage, drives it to your destination, or wherever you have moved to within the zone, hands you the keys, and bids you farewell. If you're late, the valet will wait at your destination until you arrive.
Unlike Uber drivers, Luxe valets are paid hourly, but can receive “hustle bonuses” for meeting a client faster. These bonuses can purportedly push valets' income to $20 an hour.
Two of the three Luxe valets I met downtown arrived on skateboards, all within 5-15 minutes from when I requested them. Despite being out of breath, they sported big smiles and robotic enthusiasm. They were far from the traditional notion of a valet — no tucked in shirts and upturned noses — and acted like we’d been friends for years.
“A lot of our drivers love being outside,” says Yang. “They get to learn a city. And there’s the flexibility. You get to be on shift when you want to be.”
Handing over my keys to a total stranger was daunting at first, but knowledge of Luxe’s $1 million per car insurance policy made it easier.
“We take a lot of steps to basically safety proof our transactions and to deliver really good experiences where you’re never really sketched out,” says Yang, “We interview for someone who is going to make our guests feel comfortable. We do extensive background checks and driving record checks and everything.”
Luxe Valet still has a few kinks to work out. One issue is that the app doesn’t have a way to pinpoint the exact location of either a car or a client. Ever had your Uber accidentally pull up on the wrong side of the building? Luxe has the same problem, multiplied.
One valet delivering my car back to me missed my location and arrived on the wrong side of a busy street, and I had to walk across in order to wave him down. Another valet retrieving my car arrived on the opposite entrance of a skyscraper downtown, and tried to coach me into driving to find him. I listened to him breathe heavily into the phone for three or four minutes before he found me, sweaty, skateboard in hand, rattling off apologies.
That night, starting a 11 p.m., I began received texts every 15 minutes text reminding me that Luxe closes at midnight on weekdays. Using the app, I tried to recall the car at 11:57 p.m. The app had already closed, however, and nobody picked up at customer service when I called. Luckily, Luxe stores cars overnight for only an extra $10, so I Ubered home. But I live outside the parameters of Luxe’s downtown zone, so I wasn’t able to recall the car in the morning to my location via the app. I called customer service and they agreed to deliver the car to me for another additional charge. The cost of the ordeal was $35 plus the $7 I’d spent on the Uber.
The app has such potential to make our (by “our” I mean those who can afford $5 to $15 a pop for parking) lives better that, if it were the only company of its kind, these kinks would be easy to ignore. But Luxe is only a slight frontrunner in a tight race of carbon copy parking apps. ValetAnywhere, Caarbon, Curbstand, and Vatler are all gunning to be the genericized term for smartphone-based valet.
Luxe’s tightest competition comes from Zirx, another Silicon Valley startup with equal money and experience, which also debuted in L.A. early this year. Luxe has the edge when it comes to territory (Zirx only covers downtown and Hollywood) and price (Zirx costs $15 for unlimited parking, without the $5 per hour option). Zirx, however, is better when it comes to the tech, with a slicker, easier app available on both Android and Apple's iOS.
Whoever wins the race, it's clear that the tech industry is hell-bent on solving the West Coast’s parking enigma. As someone frequently driven to fits of livid rage by L.A. parking, that’s an inspiring proposition. I would much rather give my money to Luxe than to Xerox, who bought the right to enforce L.A.'s parking rules for profit five years ago.
But Luxe doesn’t want to stop with parking. It ultimately wants valets to do everything for you, from filling your gas ($7.99 + cost) and washing your car ($40) to doing your errands for you at Target or CVS. This raises a bigger question about the Uberification of everything. Soon we may all have all the little things done by personal valets. One can imagine a world where, at the touch of a button, we're picked up from home and dropped off at work, all our errands done for us, our groceries delivered, our laundry outsourced, our homes cleaned by robots while we're away, all for the sake of having more free time.
But free time for what? Creating apps, I suppose.
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