Felipe Albertao to james.morris
The initial concept of our service was not exactly ride sharing, but basically a generic mobile bulletin board (like Craigslist, but SMS based). We initially decided to focus on ride sharing because it sounded like a good way to get traction (due to the mobility aspect of ride sharing), and we planned to expand to other categories later on.
We implementing the matching software by keywords and distances. So, for example, when the driver sends us a SMS "drive san francisco to mountain view 10am" our software would first find the location words ("san francisco" and "mountain view"), then translate them into globe coordinates (Yahoo offers such API), and finally it would process the additional words "drive" and "10am". Like so, if someone else sends "ride san francisco to sunnyvale 10am", we would match them up by proximity.
In a nutshell, here is what went wrong with our service:
1) Hard to get traction due to the classic chicken-and-egg problem: Ride sharers do not sign-up due to the lack of riders, and riders do not sign-up due to the lack of sharers.
2) People do not trust anonymous riders. We hoped to solve this issue by introducing a social network where we would prioritize the matches by degrees of separation. But that didn't work due to #1
3) The large majority of the population enjoy their privacy in their own car and do not have a motivation to share the ride (perhaps now it's a different story, since gas prices are high)
4) For those who are motivated enough to share a ride, there are already plenty of options available out there: Craigslist, employer's bulletin board, in additional to local authorities (ex: 511.org and casual car pooling in Bay Area)
5) The obvious issue of dealing with SMS, which is not user friendly. I did not list this reason as #1 because through the interviews we found that people are willing to deal with a low-tech UI if the service really worked. So we figured that poor UI (SMS) was not such a huge issue, but it definitely turned off potential users.
I think the biggest issue is really the #1 above (traction). It seems to me that focusing on a single route (say, 85 as you mentioned) is an excellent idea, and we have not tried it. Although there are plenty of rideshare systems available today, there is a real gap in casual carpooling (most of the current solutions are around fixed-time carpooling). We also have not tried the taxi dispatching idea, which could be an attractive solution, but I think it would require a huge amount of active users (i. e.: You need at least 2 people heading to the same direction at around the same time).
Also, with the gas prices going higher, you might have a better shot than we had. Our intention was to build a voucher system where the rider would prepay for the ride and then we would pay the driver according to the mileage. This idea could be a real incentive for people trying to minimize their gas expenses, especially now.
From a technology standpoint, here are the practical issues we found:
- GPS: It is still quite expensive for the user, and therefore it limits the number of people who would use the service (which is key to the success of such solution). Even though a few cell phones now offer GPS, they are mostly high end ones. There is also the problem of transmitting the location to a central server, which is an additional cost to the user (requiring data plan, etc...).
- Triangulation: It requires tight relationships with the mobile operators. One key thing we learned through this experience is that the US mobile market is basically a locked-in monopoly, and it is *extremely* hard to do anything if you are small and do not have traction. I think Google recently is doing triangulation on Google Maps, but they are Google!
- SMS messages: It was the most "accessible" technology for us, but it costs money for both the user and the service provider. Each text message costs 20 cents for the small guys, down to 5 cents for the big companies (who can negotiate direct access to the operator's gateways). Costs can easily add-up considering that such service would require multiple text messages to complete a single ridesharing transaction.
Here are a few things we tried to do to build traffic and solve the traction problem:
- Internet Ads (Adwords, Stumble Upon, etc...): No so costly, but very poor results (most people would not pass the home page). I imagine if we had cash we could have invested heavily in ads, but I don't think it would help much. The reality is that a dynamic carpooling service (in which the probability to match two parties going to the same place at the same time is quite low) would require huge piles of cash to do massive campaigns, and even so it is doubtful that it would succeed.
- PR: We got featured on a few blogs, but the big ones (like TechCrunch, etc...) are really hard to get. We innocently thought that it would be easy to get featured on one of those large blogs, but the reality is that it's really hard to get their attention, and ridesharing is not necessarily newsworthy. Even so, the audience is limited to tech workers, which are a tiny subset of the overall Bay Area population.
- Employers: We contacted the HRs of several local companies of different sizes, and the bottomline is that the risk to trust on a couple of guys (us) is higher than the benefit of offering such service to employees. Besides, ridesharing does not offer any real benefit to HR per se (in other words, it does not cut costs on any HR function). The companies who would care (HP, Yahoo, etc...) already have carpooling systems in place.
- Ads on Craigslist focused on limited locations in Bay Area. It didn't work very much, but we have not tried the focus on a specific highway as you suggested.
- Demos on the usual bay area tech venues (Mobile Monday, NewTech Meetup, etc...). We got some PR, but nothing extraordinary.
I hope this helps! Please let me know if I can help you any further, and I would be happy to share more of this experience over a meeting or coffee. I'm really passionate about the use of technology for environmental and social issues, and I hope your efforts in this area are successful!