Technology

Uber Could Finally Make Smartphone Carpools Work


Uber Could Finally Make Smartphone Carpools Work

Photograph by David Ramos/Getty Images

When Uber started up New York City in 2011, I wrote a short piece comparing it with another seemingly innovative transportation startup called Weeels. Uber seemed like a clever way for people to hire expensive black cars, while Weeels had an app offering to match you with other riders headed in the same direction, splitting the cost of a cab. I presciently declared Weeels the more ambitious of the two startups—with one important caveat about its lack of enough users to make the carpooling service functional.

In retrospect, of course, it looks like I undersold Uber’s prospects. The company has spent the intervening years expanding across the globe, fighting a multifront war against local governments, coming up with numerous ways to push its prices down, and basically becoming the most ambitious technology company this side of Google (GOOG) (which is now a major investor). Three-and-a-half years later, Uber even says it will begin experimenting with its own Weeels-like program.

Uber was smart to wait this long to try cracking the carpooling service. Sharing a hired ride requires a critical mass of sharers before it can work, and the handful of startups that have tried to launch these services from scratch have all struggled to gain traction. Uber, meanwhile, has trained a huge user base to pull out its app every time they need a ride. The company says that using the ride-sharing service will be up to 40 percent cheaper than taking its low-cost UberX cars, which could make people turn to it even more. ”At these price points,” the company crows on its website, “Uber really is cost-competitive with owning a car, which is a game-changer for consumers.”

This isn’t to say that nothing has been happening along this front. A company called Hitch was recently launched in San Francisco, offering a ride-sharing service at limited times of day. The city of Helsinki has been running a pilot project that attempts to integrate this idea into its public bus system. The pilot gets people from place to place efficiently but hasn’t drawn many riders so far.

Uber has generally functioned under the “move fast, break things” credo, but it is taking this one a bit more slowly. Uberpool, as it calls the ride-sharing service, remains in a private beta status—available to Google employees in the Bay Area, among others—as it works out the kinks in what it calls a “bold social experiment.” The company plans to open the service to the public in the region on Aug. 15.

What has Weeels been up to over that time? It first narrowed its scope, changing from a general ride-sharing service to focusing on airports and offering targeted services for employers. It has pulled its original app from the iTunes store, and its founder is giving it another shot under the name Bandwagon.

Brustein is a writer for Businessweek.com in New York.

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