Carpooling is one of those activities that seems to fall in and out of fashion, generally due to economic conditions, environmental concerns and gas prices. Right now it’s on the rise — not just for those reasons, but also thanks to the convenience of smartphones and the internet.
The European leader is Carpooling.com: and the Munich-based company is big. It operates across 40 countries, with almost four million users. Its Android and iPhone apps have been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times. Last month it was used for over a million rides. At any given time, CEO Markus Barnikel told me, it has more than 650,000 individual rides on offer.
Now it’s planning to take on the U.S. market. There, it will encounter competitors such as Zimride, which like SideCar is currently experimenting with real-time ride-sharing apps. But the reality is that no company dominates the stateside ride-sharing market yet and it still seems to be there for the taking.
A successful invasion will take money, and luckily that’s what Carpooling.com just got in the form of a significant Series C funding round. Although the figure has not been officially disclosed, I understand it amounts to $10 million.
Interestingly, the lead investor in the round is the automotive giant Daimler. When it’s not making trucks and cars, Daimler dabbles in various new mobility models, such as Car2Go (a rival to easy-rental ‘car-sharing’ outfits such as Zipcar).
“They’re an investor that not only gives us the financial backing to [move into the U.S. market], but that also has strategic knowledge in the mobility area,” Barnikel said. “You always need to build up critical mass in those markets to make it work, and now we have the financial backup and the toolkit.”
Carpooling.com’s U.S. push will take place in the fourth quarter of this year, Barnikel said, adding that the company has just opened up a New York office in preparation.
But given that existing carpooling schemes in the U.S. tend to operate on quite a local level, will the market take to the sprawling likes of Carpooling.com?
“Ride-sharing has existed for 50 years, but since the platform went digital, and especially in the past three years, we have been able to provide profiles of drivers and passengers, to help people know who they’re going with,” Barnikel said. “There’s a photo, and you have user ratings. You get a fair amount of data that gives you comfort.”
Of course, with a company this far down the road — Carpooling.com was founded in 2001 — there are multiple sides to the business. Apart from the booking fees it gets from hooking up drivers and passengers, the firm also builds white-label carpooling systems for corporate customers, sells train tickets to those who can’t find a ride at the right time, and even rakes in cash from advertising.
U.S. startups trying to expand their carpooling services across the country had better rev up, and fast.
Hitchhiking photograph copyright Shutterstock/Lexaarts