Brandon Fried found himself stranded on the side of the road twice in less than a week.
One night driving home from dinner, Fried’s car got a flat tire. Stranded on the side of the road in an isolated part of Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C. Despite being a member of AAA—the dominant roadside assistance company for over a century—Fried actually downloaded the app Urgent.ly and requested help. Within half an hour, an autoshop called him, someone arrived to help, and he was back on the road.
Four days later, Fried hit a pothole during rush hour and had to rely on Urgent.ly again. Despite the time of day, the response time was around 17 minutes. Both incidents cost Fried $75 each. Rather than charging a yearly fee, apps like Urgent.ly charge for services a la carte.
“Thirty-five years ago, you needed AAA,” said Fried, who was gifted a membership—once seen as a necessary precaution, despite the hefty annual fee—from his father while in college. Pre-GPS, drivers relied on AAA to guide them through new roads and highways. AAA offered customizable maps called TripTiks and issued diamond ratings to restaurants and hotels, long before Google Maps and Yelp.
But recently, a new new array of roadside assistance apps such as Urgent.ly and Honk are using Uber’s business model to make inroads into AAA’s market of nearly 54 million drivers. And it’s working. Honk, which only launched in 2014, secured $12 million in Series A funding last year and is now the second largest roadside network in the country. Urgent.ly announced a $7 million funding round last year and is offered in over 80 cities and growing.
“Thirty-five years ago, you needed AAA.”
Similar to Uber, Urgent.ly and Honk both deploy a GPS-dispatch system that connects drivers in need with the nearest available tow truck. Honk CEO Corey Brundage told USA Today that such a proximity-based system allows for a faster response time. While previous reports have suggested otherwise, a spokesman from AAA told the Daily Dot that it also uses a proximity-based system that locates the nearest facility for 98 percent of its calls, “many times directly to the vehicle that can respond the quickest.” Despite this, many Yelp reviewers throughout the years have complained about long or misquoted wait times for AAA’s services.
“Each year I would renew [my membership to AAA], blindly so,” said Fried. But after receiving a bill of $365 from AAA for membership fees, services, and a recent incident in which he waited over 2 hours for AAA to respond to a flat tire, Fried began to look for alternatives.
If you’re considering doing the same, here’s what you need to know about the major roadside assistance apps and a breakdown of their prices, services offered, and estimated wait times.
As far as design goes, Honk stands out for its clear, visual presentation and foresight to get (and give) certain details up front. After downloading the app, you can easily save details like your credit card information and your car’s make, model, and year in a matter of seconds. Once you request a job, the app asks for additional time-saving details. For example, after requesting a flat tire change, I was asked to identify which tire had problems and whether I needed a spare, a jack, or whether I had a wheel lock.
The app’s services include a jump start, fuel delivery, unlocking your car, towing, and ditch retrieval. If price is your main concern, Honk also sticks out as being the most up front. The app quoted me a flat rate of $35 for a flat tire change or a jump start in downtown Washington, D.C. For a tow request, Honk quoted me a base price of $59, with an additional $5 per mile.
Honk estimates a 15-30 minute arrival time for its jobs. You are able to track your job’s arrival through GPS.
Urgent.ly offers the same menu of services as Honk, with the exception of being available outside the app. You can request a service on Urgent.ly’s website or even give them a phone call. Unlike Honk, which determines prices based on location, Urgent.ly quotes a flat rate of $75 on its site for basic repair services such as a jump start or a flat tire change. Towing rates start at $99 for up to 10 miles. Urgent.ly also offers an accident detection feature, which uses your smartphone’s motion sensors to detect if your car is involved in an accident.
One drawback of Urgent.ly seems to be how it estimates arrival times for its tow trucks. I searched a number of different cities and suburbs on Urgent.ly and was given a 15-minute arrival window for a tow truck. As user reviews of Urgent.ly can confirm, this 15 minute arrival isn’t always accurate.
One benefit of Urgent.ly for couples and family members is its Family View feature, which sends you a text alert if your family member ever requests help on the road and allows you to track the status of their service request. It’s a thoughtful (while not mission-critical) feature that helps Urgent.ly stand out.
The classic: AAA
AAA offers its own app that allows members to request roadside assistance, as well as access the organization’s travel discounts and other offers. One user complained that trying to open a roadside assistance request “fails more often than most.” Requesting a job through AAA’s app is similar to Urgent.ly and Honk, but it requires you to type in your AAA member number in advance. AAA’s app, similar to the other roadside assistance apps, requests additional details about the service request that could make the transaction faster. While user reviews mention that roadside assistance requests on AAA’s app will often crash the app, the app worked fine for me.
Unlike Urgent.ly and Honk, the AAA app gave no estimated time of arrival or ability to track my tow truck. After requesting a flat tire change, I could only see details of the transaction under the “Service History” side bar of AAA’s app. An AAA spokesman told the Daily Dot that its app does offer a service tracking features, but only if the tow truck is also enabled with GPS. AAA is striving to expand this feature to 85 percent of tow trucks by the end of 2016.
There’s a handy button that allows you to call AAA directly, which of course defeats the entire purpose of downloading the app.
Correction: This story incorrectly stated that Honk included an accident detection feature. Urgent.ly includes that feature.
This story has also been updated to include comment from AAA.
Illustration via Max Fleishman