How Cell Phones Can Unlock Ride Sharing

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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