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Summary:

Adding mobile apps to ride-sharing options will open up the services to all those car poolers that just don’t want to plan in advance. On the other hand, maybe that’s not such a good thing.

Over the past three years, ride-sharing startup Zimride has been building a web ecosystem based on trust, and largely Facebook, that’s been helping to reinvent carpooling. With the raising of $1.2 million in seed funding announced this week — from Floodgate, K9 Ventures, and angels including Keith Rabois and Teddy Downey — the company is also looking to develop its mobile application, which Zimride CEO Logan Green tells me in an interview will eventually be available for iPhone, Android, and HTML 5 platforms.

While Green says it’s still too early to talk about what a Zimride mobile application would look like, he notes that the potential for mobile to unlock a new audience for ride sharing will be “absolutely huge.” A mobile app would open up the possibility for different types of trips for a more casual, dynamic user, says Green. For example, the bulk of current Zimride riders are consistent commuters and planners who book pretty far in advance online, but a mobile app could facilitate more on-the-spot, random, last-minute and dynamic trips.

Other new carpooling startups have embraced mobile even more quickly than Zimride. Two-year-old Carticipate bills itself as the first mobile ride-sharing app with a location-based platform. The app can match you and your carpooling needs by where you are at any given time. It might not have the trusted feeling of the college networks and corporations that Zimride relies upon, but it’s simple and intuitive.

Weeels is another ride- and taxi-sharing service that has mobile baked into its core. Conceived by David Mahfouda on a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railroad in 2006, the current Weeels mobile app has been under development since the fall of 2009. Carpooling service provider Avego also has already launched its iPhone app, which can dynamically find open seats in carpools.

It’s been the mobile platforms of iPhone and Android that have really enabled unobtrusive, location-based apps to be developed around car data and now ride sharing. Laura Schewel, the co-founder of Virtual Vehicle Company (VEVCo), which builds apps based on cell phone GPS data, told me that Google and Apple’s mobile operating systems enabled VEVCo to make an app that was inexpensive and could pull driver information without the consumers having to add in manual input. That’s the key: Don’t ask users to do any more than they have to.

However, the real heart of how Zimride has been able to bring in big name customers — 55 corporate and university partners and counting — is that they’ve created an ecosystem based on users trusting the networks they use for ride sharing. For example, three companies that work in an office park are comfortable pooling together their users for rides because they’re neighbors. Or college students know the other car poolers will be other students, so there’s a level of trust that the ecosystem provides.

That kind of trust could be harder to manage for mobile-focused startups, given the nature of an app that is looking to organize dynamic, casual trips. Wheels, Carticipate and Avego might have drop-dead simple mobile apps already available to install and use, but the filters and comfort levels don’t seems as reassuring.

Neither, I would guess, are the revenues. Zimride’s Green says the company is break even now, before it’s invested in expansion, and it makes money via subscriptions from its big name customers. It’s hard to see how the other companies will make money at the end of the day from consumers wanting to share their rides.

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  1. [...] How Cell Phones Can Unlock Ride SharingEarth2Tech (blog)It's been the mobile platforms of iPhone and Android that have really enabled unobtrusive, location-based apps to be developed around car data and now ride … [...]

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  2. Good to see that carpolling is mobile now!! If you travel to Europe (France, Switzerland, Belgium and Spain) you can look for a ride with the COMUTO iPhone App. Also available for Android, and any cell with data connection. J

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  3. Hey, Katie, thanks for paying attention to this important space, and for mentioning Avego in your round-up.

    While Avego is a venture-backed company, and our sales levels are confidential, I think it is worthwhile to note that are sales volume is already in the millions of dollars and is growing in excess of 100% annually, so you needed be overly concerned with our financial viability. Nonetheless, there are numerous challenges to getting people to a place where they are willing to change their behavior and open up their cars for sharing, so we expect it may take years before millions of people are doing it routinely through mobile-powered apps like Avego. But even today, tens of thousands of people daily are relying on Avego to help in getting them around, so we expect to continue to advance the state of the art, as we have been doing for the past three years.
    Best,
    Sean O’Sullivan, managing director, Avego

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  4. Hey, Katie, thanks for paying attention to this important space, and for mentioning Avego in your round-up.

    While Avego is a venture-backed company, and our sales levels are confidential, I think it is worthwhile to note that our sales volume is already in the millions of dollars and is growing in excess of 100% annually, so you needn’t be overly concerned with our financial viability.

    Nonetheless, there are numerous challenges to getting people to a place where they are willing to change their behavior and open up their cars for sharing, so we expect it may take years before millions of people are doing it routinely through mobile-powered apps like Avego. But even today, tens of thousands of people daily are relying on Avego to help in getting them around, so we expect to continue to advance the state of the art, as we have been doing for the past three years.
    Best,
    Sean O’Sullivan, managing director, Avego

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  5. @Sean O’Sullivan, Thanks for the update on the company.

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    1. @Katie, sorry for the double posting above, it’s tough when trying to enter a comment from a little iPhone keyboard and the typos and autocorrections got put in, and I couldn’t delete the first one!

      @Stone, I understand the fear of strangers. Consider this, however: if you take public transit or walk on a street on travel in an elevator, you are sharing space with strangers every day. However, if you travel in a tracked vehicle with two known entities, with known cellphone numbers, known bank account/credit card information, known geographic preferences, and a known history of rated activity, you aren’t travelling with strangers, you are just travelling with people that don’t necessarily know each other, but they are certainly not “strangers”, or unknown entities.

      Of course, for many people, this is still not comfortable, so those people would be more apt to share with people that they know as part of their company or social grouping. That’s a user preference in these applications, every application that will be successful in this space will likely support that limitation if the user desires.
      Best wishes,
      Sean

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  6. This is such a great idea. Thank goodness thrill killers and serial rapists don’t use cell phones and wouldn’t ever think of using these apps to lure unsuspecting (incredibly naive) cell users into their vehicles. And even if they do, the percentage will be small… so get out there and share a ride with a perfect stranger! It could be scary fun.

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  7. Katie,

    Interesting article. Our website goCarShare.com uses Facebook and eBay style ratings to help people feel more comfortable about the issue of safety.

    Clearly mobile apps have huge potential for car sharing, there are going to be a lot of companies trying, but the rewards for getting it right will be high.

    Drummond

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  8. Hi Katie,
    Nice post. I think the ride and taxi sharing platforms you highlight are the start of a whole new wave of companies and system that use technology to create trust between strangers. The internet has created the efficiencies and ‘social glue’ for us to mimic the exchanges that used to take place face-to-face but in ways and on a scale never possible before. eBay and craigslist were the godfathers of this groundswell; Zimride, Avego, Airbnb, Zopa, Neighborgoods and so I could go on are the next wave and a part of what I call Collaborative Consumption (www.collaborativeconsumption.com)We are just starting to see how they will reinvent entire industries…
    Rachel Botsman

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  9. Pfff like anybody is going to give a ride to that guy in the picture.

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  10. Hi Katie. I echo the other comments that it is good this space is receiving interest. There are over 300 million empty seats being driven to work each day in the USA, so there is lots of capacity for doing things differently.

    The single most successful carpooling system in the world is the casual carpooling in San Francisco, where about 8,000 people share rides each day with people they have never met before. They go to meeting places and get in the next car going their way, always two riders per driver. And guess what….no technology is involved. You might like to look at http://www.commutergal.com, a cool blog by a user. A similar system called the slug-lines operates in Washington DC.

    We are about to launch a more formal system that builds on the underlying idea that people will go to a meeting-place to share a ride, given sufficient safety, with people they have not met before, and without pre-arranging the trip. See our website: http://www.raspberryexpress.com.

    And in January at the Transportation Research Board annual meeting in Washington DC we have a key panel devoted to the question of ‘How we double ridesharing within ten years’. In this case ridesharing includes carpooling, vanpooling, and transit, and we are seeking input into research strategies to double the ‘ridesharing to work’ statistic from the current level of 23 million (16 m in carpools and vanpools and 7 million in public transport) to 46 million by 2020. No small task, though the efforts of the companies mentioned in your article will no doubt help. Info on the workshop can be found here: http://pressamp.trb.org/conferences/programs/session.asp?event=654&session=20208

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