Q&A: Chinese American entrepreneurs offer carpooling solution to Beijing's traffic jams
Traffic congestion, vehicle exhaust pollution and rising fueling prices may be the biggest nightmare for Beijing’s 20 million residents. But for three Chinese Americans, they are a big business opportunity. Eric Wang, 26, James Hu, 28 and Jeff Hsu, 23, came to Beijing in 2011 to start an internet site called Wodache, literally “I get a ride”. The carpooling platform matches drivers with riders on both its website and iPhone application. They are using mobile technology to build a green network to change people’s behaviour to solve environmental and social problems.
Q: What were you doing in the US before starting this platform?
Eric: I worked in investment banking in New York and Hong Kong. I have no background in technology. James worked for Microsoft in Seattle. We knew each other at high school in Seattle.
Jeff: I grew up in Los Angeles and studied electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California, Berkeley. I worked for Apple for a year, on chips inside iPhone 4 and iPad. That’s when I realised software was very interesting and had less limitations than hardware. I went to India to set up Mobilising Health, a project based on text message technology to provide health care advice to villagers. I found it very interesting to use technology to help solve social problems. After I returned from India I worked for Microsoft Research Asia on smart buildings and green technology. But I turned down a PhD offer in computer science from a graduate school in the States last year to join Wodache.
Q: How did you come up tithe idea of building a carpool platform?
Eric: I was doing a development study programme in Europe and was enjoying my summer on the beach in Greece in 2010 when I suddenly saw the news about a traffic jam all the way from Inner Mongolia to Beijing. It was crazy, I thought. There must have a solution to this. So I called James from the Europe. He was volunteering at Haiti at that time. So I said “hey why don’t you come to China to try this out?" We talked for four hours about car sharing in China as a new way to help people’s mobility without going to through the same automobile revolution as the US.
I wanted to be involved in social enterprises that actually changed people’s behaviour. This isn’t just a game or luxury product. It has social worth.
For a few months I worked on the business side and James on the product side. Then I bought one-way ticket from Europe to Beijing and James did the same from Seattle. We met up in Beijing in March 2011 and fortunately met Jeff through a friend.
Q: When did you choose Beijing?
Eric: Beijing has the worst traffic in the world. It made sense to choose Beijing because we wanted to solve a community problem by tackling traffic and pollution problems. Several decades ago China had few cars but now it is the world’s largest auto market. But there is already huge environmental damage, as 70 per cent of pollution comes from car emissions and that’s why Beijing’s air is so bad. The average speed of cars here is very low because we are in traffic all the time. There’s a traffic jam at any time from 6 am to midnight. And parking space is so limited.
Another reason we chose Beijing is because we’re using mobile and internet technology. Beijing is the biggest technology hub outside Silicon Valley. There’s a big start-up community here. We connected with start-up community quite well.
Q: Did you have any experience working in Beijing?
Eric: We didn’t know anyone in Beijing. I haven’t lived in China for 10 years and James has never lived or worked in China. None of us has worked or studied in China. We had no network here, and no money. For the first a couple of months we slept on couches.
Q: How does your platform work?
Eric: People go to our website and post their commute trips. We do automatic matching between drivers and the riders. Many users are white-collar professionals in big companies. For example, people working in the same area but at different firms can carpool more easily. We are the first ones to help users to find riding partners within their own companies, which earns us a lot of word-of-mouth.
Q: How do you match the users?
James: The system does the matching, but it’s not just the keyword matching, not just from text. It’s from the actual locations, the start and end locations and the routes. It matches according to geographic co-ordinates
Q: So users can take a half-way ride?
Eric: Yes. We only provide the matching. Users decide to take or provide the rides. For example,do you can want an end-to-end trip, or you are okay with dropping off people, or you don’t want to pick up people on the way. We all understand that in Beijing picking up people in this traffic can be a kind of hassle.
Q: How can the users choose their riding partners?
James: When you post your trip, you can see different trips that match yours, and you can check the details and send requests to carpool with people. We don’t just put phone numbers on the listings. We care about privacy. So when I send a request, the other side will receive a text message or a push notification on iPhone that “James wants to carpool with you”. And he can check my profile on the website or on iPhone then accept or deny it. If I’m accepted, the system will provide each person the others’ phone numbers. If I am denied, no phone numbers will be given.
Q: What about safety concerns?
Eric: Safety is our highest priority. We work with companies to help their employees carpool, as travelling with one’s colleagues is most trustworthy. Our users are also verified by their employers, which adds more trust. Also we provide drivers with car accident insurance for the riders.
Users can add other personal information, such as where they are from, where they studied and so on.
Q: How can you verify users?
Jeff: We encourage users to provide their real names, photos and who they work for so we can get verification from your employer. We believe other users are more willing to carpool with you when they know who your work for.
Users can also log in to our network with their Sina microblog account and download their social data. Other users can read the social activities and pictures from the microblogs which may also help to build trust.
Q: Do you have any control over users’ behaviour?
Eric: We recommend certain things, for example not to smoke in the car. We also encourage people to show up on time – if, for example, you make a booking and don’t show up on time more than a certain number of times, we may do something to have a negative feedback.
Q: Do the users need to pay?
Eric: No. Currently the service is free for users. As now we are working with the companies, it’s not a main concern to make money by carpooling with colleagues. Some users just buy the drivers some lunch.
Q: How do you survive if customers don’t pay?
Eric: As an Internet company creating an actual community or a network is more valuable. For us especially at this stage we want to solve our customers’ problem first. Once a large community is created, I am sure that there will be other ways that we can make a profit. Facebook is also free for users.
Q: What do you think of the carpooling community in Beijing?
Eric: It’s very easy for customers to understand the concept because of the traffic jams, the rising transport costs and the pollution. It is estimated there are more than 100,000 drivers looking to carpool and a couple of thousand riders. There are also long-distance carpools to hometowns during the Lunar New Year.
It’s very wasteful for one person to drive alone, and it’s very boring to be stuck in a traffic jam by yourself. If you can take someone, especially another colleague who lives in the same neighborhoods, those problems are solved.