Trouble with new carpooling services

For years now many ride app startups have been trying to crack the carpooling code. Startups like Zimride focused on longer destination trips like LA to San Francisco. But what about in city carpooling?

It would seem that companies already versed in connecting drivers with riders might be the best position to do carpooling, companies like Lyft, Sidecar and Uber which have extensive networks of drivers and robust software systems to handle the connecting of riders with drivers with other drivers.

Well, Uber and Lyft were thinking the same thing and rolled out new carpooling services that would allow riders to split the cost of the ride with other riders by allowing a driver to do multiple pickups and dropoffs.

But apparently things aren’t going terribly well.

So far complaints have included shared rides being too far out of the way, lack of clarity over who gets dropped off first and false confirmations of pickups. This is somewhat unsurprising given the fact these are both beta testing products for both startups and the reality that there’s a major algorithmic feat in accurately matching two riders in a given proximity with a driver. All in realtime. There are also critical mass/volume of rider requirements to have a enough supply so that matches can be made both within a relatively short pickup and drop off distance.

Still, I confess that I love the idea. The ability to grab a ride for five bucks instead of 10 or 15 radically changes the economics of hailing a cab. At that price point, we’re talking serious competition for public transit where the competing issue will be how long one has to wait for the arrival of the car versus the bus/subway (it should be also noted that if carpooling pulls ridership from public transit, and not taxis, then it’s likely having a larger carbon impact). Finally there’s an intimacy of sharing a ride with a stranger, something that some people won’t go for but which may also encourage interaction with folks in one’s community.

We’re not there yet but I think we will ultimately get there as these are solvable programming problems. The proliferation of new transportation options remains one of the more disruptive forces in urban spaces.