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Main article: Ride-sharing

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Didi will resume late night Hitch rides, but only allow drivers to pick up passengers of the same sex

10:19 | 14 June

Didi Chuxing’s inter-city carpooling service will resume night operations on a limited basis about a month after a female passenger was allegedly murdered by an unregistered driver who accessed the platform using his father’s account. Called Didi Hitch, the service will return on June 15 with new safety measures, including one that only allows drivers to serve passengers of the same sex during late night hours. Didi Hitch will also began piloting a new feature later this month called “guardian mode” (not “escort mode” as reported by some publications) that automatically shares ride details with a passenger’s emergency contacts.

The company says Didi Hitch will resume partial nighttime service between the hours of 10PM to 12AM and 5AM to 6AM on June 15, but with what Didi says is a “tentative safety measure.” During those times, drivers will only be able to accept ride requests made by passengers of the same sex. In other words, male drivers can only accept male passengers, while female drivers can only accept female passengers.

Guardian mode will launch on June 22 as a smale-scale pilot. When a passenger turns it on, their route is automatically shared with their emergency contacts. Didi also says its platform can monitor routes in real time and “intervene in case of any unusual activity.” Another new feature, called the shared information card, will launch on the same day and display photos of both the driver and passenger and vehicle information, with the aim of allowing both parties to verify each other’s identities.

DiDi also said it will start trialing a voice recording feature for its other services, including Express, Select, ExpressPool and Minibus, in some cities.

One of the most highly-valued startups in the world, Didi now claims about 30 million daily rides and 21 million driver partners. For some passengers, however, these new safety measures may not be enough to reassure them. For one thing, last month’s murder meant that the alleged perpetrator was able to overcome several safety measures. First, he used his father’s verified driver account to access the platform. Secondly, Didi Chuxing’s facial recognition technology, which it has used since 2016 to verify drivers when they first sign up and then when they log in to start shifts, failed. Didi also said that the account had received a sexual harassment complaint before the murder, though it was unclear if that was while the father or son was using it. Didi apparently failed to contact the account despite making five efforts, but the platform nevertheless continued to allow it to accept rides.

While the new safeguards might placate some users, they don’t address the core issues brought up by the murder: making sure potentially dangerous people aren’t allowed on the platform in the first place, or are dealt with promptly when complaints surface. This is not the first time a murder has been linked to a Didi driver. Two years ago a driver allegedly confessed to robbing and killing a female passenger in Shenzhen.

In a statement emailed to TechCrunch, a DiDi spokesperson said:

“After revamping our core safety functions (including enhanced facial recognition, upgraded in-app emergency buttons, and many more), we are taking cautious steps to gradually extend DiDi Hitch’s service hours in response to demands from users. This recent update will increase the range of mobility options available to passengers during these hours.

As we do so, DiDi Hitch is trialing with a number of safety initiatives based on feedback and advice from riders, drivers and other members of the public in China. We understand some of the tentative initiatives that have attracted a lot of public support in this round of consultation might have never been tried before. We will closely monitor and review the results from such experiments with the public, and make continuous adjustments. Our focus is on ensuring the Hitch service is brought back in a safe and responsible way; and that users understand–and join us as we work through–the challenges involved in providing sustainable, fair and safe mobility services. The Hitch and other teams will continue to work around the clock for ever more satisfactory solutions. We will keep you posted.”

TechCrunch has asked for further information about the sex ratio of drivers on Didi’s platform, since that may impact how many female passengers are able to get a late-night ride using Hitch, and will update this article if we hear back.

DiDi also confirmed today that it has placed RMB 1 million (about $150,000 ) into a fiduciary account of the Beijing Global Law Office to reward informants who are able to give information that can help police solve the case. if no information or evidence has been confirmed by police by September 1, then Didi says the money will be donated to the China Foundation for Justice and Courage, which is overseen by the Ministry of Public Security.



Uber applies for patent that would detect drunk passengers

15:45 | 11 June

While Uber has changed the way that many think about transportation, it’s also changed the way that many drunk people find their way home at night. Rather than haphazardly hailing a cab or driving home under the influence, Uber provides a relatively safer way to get from point A to B on an indulgent evening.

The company has been curious about its drunk users, applying for a patent with the United States Patent and Trademark Office for a system that would use machine learning to determine the ‘state’ of a passenger.

While the patent limits itself to a dry discussion of ‘user state,’ it seems that what Uber is really interested in is detecting the difference between users of sound mind and users who are under the influence.

CNN first spotted the patent, which describes a method of measuring the user’s behavior on their phone against their usual behavior, using information like location, data input accuracy, data input speed, interface interaction behavior, the angle at which the user is holding their device, or even the speed at which they’re walking.

The patent also describes a system that would notify drivers of the passenger’s ‘state’, theoretically letting them prepare for the adventure ahead.

The patent says that riders in a particularly unusual state may be matched with drivers who have special training or expertise, or may not be provided service at all.

In the vast majority of cases, hailing an Uber is one of the safest ways for a drunk person to get home. On the other hand, Uber has run into issues with drivers who have sexually assaulted passengers. CNN reports that at least 103 Uber drivers in the US have been accused of sexually assaulting or abusing passengers in the last four years, with many of the police reports noting that the passengers were inebriated or had been drinking before getting into the car.

Notifying drivers when a passenger is drunk could save those drivers the headache of hauling around an out-of-control passenger, or prevent drivers from dealing with passengers who puke in their car, which may lead to disputed charges. But the system described in this patent could also allow for predatory behavior by malicious drivers.

There is also the broader implications of Uber knowing when you’re drunk. The company has not been a beacon of trust with regards to user data, having to pay $20,000 for using “God View” to spy on users and reportedly paying to cover up a massive data breach.

Of course, only a fraction of a company’s patents ever make it into the final product. Only time will tell if Uber’s idea to monitor the state of passengers will end up in the app.



MIT to revisit ride-sharing study after Uber rebuttal

17:39 | 6 March

The lead academic behind an MIT CEEPR research paper which casts doubt on the sustainability of driving for Uber or Lyft has accepted Uber’s criticism of how driver income data was gathered and said he will revise the research using more generous income calculations.

“Uber’s Chief Economist Jonathan Hall wrote a thoughtful response expressing his concern with one aspect of our paper,” wrote lead author Stephen Zoepf in a response statement yesterday to the company’s critique of the research. “Hall’s specific criticism is valid; in retrospect the survey questions could and should have been worded more clearly.”

Last week Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi‏ appeared to be channeling the spirit of former chief exec and Uber founder, Travis Kalanick, when he tweeted out a clumsy insult — writing that “MIT = Mathematically Incompetent Theories” — in his initial response to the research.

MIT = Mathematically Incompetent Theories (at least as it pertains to ride-sharing). @techreview report differs markedly from other academic studies and @TheRideshareGuy recent survey. Our analysis: https://t.co/S2aAqCuDR0

— dara khosrowshahi (@dkhos) March 3, 2018

It was an unfortunate shift away from an otherwise contrite and even humble tone the new Uber CEO has sought to strike since taking the driver’s seat last year (and inheriting a trunk stuffed full of legacy baggage and operational skeletons — from security scandals and legal challenges to culture problems, federal investigations and regulatory sanction, to name a few of Uber’s problems).

Perhaps he realized the error of letting the mask slip as his angry tweet was quickly followed by a tweet of thanks to MIT for “listening and revisiting”.

The MIT research paper compared the earnings and costs of 1,100+ drivers on the two ride-sharing platforms, with the original version of the study concluding that the median profit was just $3.37 per hour — with 74% of the drivers earning less than the minimum wage in the state where they operate.

The researchers also found that a median driver generates $0.59 per mile of driving but incurs costs of $0.30 per mile; and almost a third (30 per cent) of drivers were found to incur expenses exceeding their revenue or to be losing money for every mile they drive.

It’s the driver earnings figures that Uber took issue with, rather than the costs. Lyft also told us its initial impression of the study was it “shows some questionable assumptions”.

Harry Campbell, founder of The Ride Share Guy blog, which hosted the driver survey where MIT gathered data for its study, also queried MIT’s driver earnings calculations. Though his business is full time blogging about the ride-sharing industry which inevitably connects him to its interests — if not literally as directly as Uber and Lyft.

“The expense side of things seems right on to me but $7/hr in gross earnings seems too low based off my experience,” Campbell told us of MIT’s original study. “I think there was some ambiguity around the question about driver’s monthly income where as I directly asked drivers this year how much they made per hour and the average was $16.93 per hour before expenses.”

While Zoepf has said a “thorough” revision of the research will take “a few weeks” he has published an initial assessment of the net hourly ride-hailing driver profit distribution using two new methods — both of which bump up driver median profits (to $8.55 per hour; and $10p/h, respectively). Though only one puts a majority of drivers over the 2016 minimum wage in their state.

Here’s how he describes the two methods:

Using data in this survey there are two ways to calculate hourly revenue and net profit numbers. Method 1: use monthly revenue numbers when available (Question 14) and calculate hourly numbers using the working schedule reported in Question 11. Method 2: Use reported $/hour revenue numbers when available (Questions 19 & 22). In both cases the profit from driving is higher than we initially reported.

Using Method 1, and following Hall’s advice not to adjust income, Median profit rises to $8.55/hour from the $3.37 initially reported. For 54% of drivers, profit per hour is less than 2016 minimum wage in their state. 8% of drivers lose money. Using Method 2, median profit rises to $10/hour. For 41% of drivers, profit per hour is less than 2016 minimum wage in their state. 4% of drivers lose money. I’m happy to review these numbers with Hall and his team to address any remaining questions with the analysis as I release the next draft of the paper.

Zoepf goes on to call for Uber to provide better access to data to enable robust and independent analysis of the economics of the ride-sharing model, pointing out there is “no public ride-hailing data and a paucity of independent studies outside Uber’s own analyses”.

“In the spirit of collaboration, I ask the following from Uber, in keeping with the original objectives of this paper,” he continues. “(1) Help make an open, honest and public assessment of the range of ride-hailing driver profit after the cost of acquiring, operating and maintaining a vehicle. (2) Transparently present the difference between actual and tax-reportable vehicle expenses used in the business.

“In support of these goals I am happy to share existing cost data from this working paper with Uber or Lyft, or to incorporate full and accurate revenue data from Uber in this analysis should they decide to share such data.”

You can read his full response statement here.

One telling facet of the US ride-sharing market is that for most drivers Uber or Lyft is not their full time job. According to Campbell’s data, “about 65 per cent of ride-share drivers are part-timers — “so definitely a majority of drivers are doing this on the side or have other jobs”, he says.

That undermines the simplistic notion that drivers would simply not be driving for ride-sharing platforms if it was not economical for them to do so.

The reality is that most ride-sharing drivers are juggling multiple jobs — and are therefore having to make their own complex calculations to try to determine their individual costs and earnings. And having to do so without the benefit of public data to help them.

Add to that, some drivers may also be facing an imminent bill, such as a lease on a car, which means they feel they have to drive to earn income in the short term to cover an imminent cost.

For drivers who own the vehicle they are using for ride-sharing, over the longer term vehicle depreciation is also be being racked up in the background — saddling them with the burden of negative equity on their cars. A cost that Uber and Lyft’s businesses offload onto drivers — hence the criticism that gig economy business models are inherently exploitative.

Safe to say, the complex considerations and calculations that surround ride-hailing mean external and robust investigation of its economics is sorely needed. As is access to high quality data to enable vigorous research.

What’s really not called for are insults to academic efforts that seek, in good faith, to quantify the pros and cons of ride-sharing.

Featured Image: NurPhoto/Getty Images



Chariot co-founder and CEO Ali Vahabzadeh left Ford at the beginning of February

17:24 | 20 February

As automakers continue to work on their strategies for the next generation of transportation, one of the biggies is making a change to its leadership structure. Ali Vahabzadeh, the CEO and co-founder of ride-sharing startup Chariot, which Ford acquired Chariot in September 2016, has left the company.

“We thank Ali for his passion and dedication to building Chariot into the growing mobility business it is today,” the company told TechCrunch in a statement. “We are glad he will continue to serve Chariot as a director on the Chariot board, and all wish him well in his next adventure.”

He has been replaced in the interim by Dan Grossman, who leads Microtransit for Ford Smart Mobility, while the company looks for a permanent person to lead Chariot.

It seems that Ali himself had quietly announced his departure two weeks ago, to no one’s notice — writing that he wanted to step away to pursue his next entrepreneurial venture.

But this may not be the full story. The person who originally provided the tip to TechCrunch alleges that Vahabzadeh was actually fired in early February after employees co-signed a letter to Ford’s CEO James Hackett complaining about toxic work culture and poor employee retention. Ford declined to comment on this. (We are also following up on this allegation. If you know something, you can send it anonymously to us via our tips page.)

Ford acquired Chariot in September 2016 as part of its efforts to build alternative transport services for people moving away from fully owning and driving their own vehicles.

It bases its service around a fleet of transit vans whose routes are aimed at commuters, and where what routes are offered is based on a “crowdsourced” vote.

The startup was launched at Y Combinator and had only raised around $3 million before Ford acquired it, reportedly for $65 million plus earn-outs.

Chariot started in San Francisco but has had its eye on growing. In January 2017 it announced plans to expand to another eight cities (it’s currently active in five in the US, including New York, Columbus, Austin-San Antonio and Seattle). As of this month it is now also in London with plans to expand elsewhere in Europe.

“We’re going to be super aggressive in expanding to multiple markets over the next year,” said Vahabzadeh in an interview with TechCrunch at the time of the acquisition. “It became very clear very early on that Chariot would be able to leverage Ford’s expertise in logistics and vehicle and operations to take Chariot and make this a global service, beyond just the Bay area.”

But growth has not been without hiccups. In October, Chariot had to halt service for a period in San Francisco after failing to pass a series of California Highway Patrol inspections.

In terms of competition, there are a number of other services looking to fill in the gap between private cars; taxis and other single-destination ride-hailing services; buses; trains; and your own legs. They include services like Uber Pool, startups like Via, and new services that appear to be emerging by the week, such as this new Smart Bus effort from Citymapper in London.



London sets out safety-first plan for regulating ride-sharing

16:02 | 15 February

After London sent ripple’s of shock through Silicon Valley last year, by denying Uber a renewal of its private hire vehicle license, the city’s transport regulator is doubling down on its scrutiny of the impact of app-based ride operators.

Today it’s published a policy statement setting out its intentions for adapting transport regulations to fit the fast-changing sector. And chief among its stated priorities is the safety and welfare of passengers and drivers.

“Safety will be a particular focus in new or novel areas where there is little existing evidence of what happens in practice,” TfL writes in its policy document. “Maintaining high standards of safety is the top priority and operators should clearly demonstrate this.

“That means setting out clear policies and action for the prevention and reporting of offences and for clear, named accountability at senior management level for safety, reporting and protection of personal data.”

TfL also flags up “broad support” in a recent consultation on private hire vehicle regulations for ensuring clear controls exist to “protect the safety of passengers and drivers”.

“To ensure that these services provide a safe, secure, accessible and sustainable contribution to London’s transport system, we will consider making use of provisions in the Transport Act 1985 and the Private Hire Vehicles (London) Act 1998 to set regulations,” it writes. “We will consult on proposals to make changes to private hire legislation as appropriate. Views will be sought from stakeholders, other taxi and private hire regulators and the public in 2018.”

TfL says operators “should ensure that drivers are treated fairly, ensure drivers have appropriate and reasonable working hours including appropriate breaks throughout their shift and have clear policies and procedures to keep drivers safe”.

Gig economy working conditions is also an area of focus for the UK government, following growing concern about safety and welfare in the sector — and earlier this month it announced a package of labor market reforms aimed at responding to changes driven by the rise of app platforms which it billed as a major expansion of workers rights.

Concerns over public safety and a lack of corporate responsibility were the key reasons TfL listed for denying Uber’s license renewal in September.

And while Uber is appealing that decision, and is continuing to operate in London during the appeals process, TfL’s policy statement suggests that whatever the eventual outcome in court its intent is to tighten regulation on the sector, with the aim of enforcing a more responsible approach from all service providers.

Though it also notes that any regulation changes will be subject to a full public consultation.

Among recent regulatory tweaks made by TfL is a formal English language requirement for drivers — a move that Uber opposed. But it’s considering lots more changes for regulating the sector, including an advanced driving test; PHV operator fleet insurance; private hire vehicle signage; and even mechanisms to allow passengers to choose who they share vehicles with.

It’s also conducting an impact assessment of removing London’s Congestion Charge exemption for private hire vehicles — which would clearly have a knock-on impact on fares — and says, depending on the outcome of that work, the measure could be put up for a public consultation too.

Expanding accessibility by requiring a minimum percentage of private hire vehicles to be wheelchair accessible is another change it’s looking at.

The policy statement also advocates for operators to share “travel pattern data” with TfL — “so that travel patterns in London and the overall impact of the services can be understood”. Which perhaps offers a route for service providers that have lots of data to build better relations with the regulator — by providing insights that city planners can benefit from. (We’ve asked Uber if it’s currently sharing any data with TfL and will update this article with any response.)

“The private hire market is unrecognisable from when current legislation was introduced,” said Helen Chapman, interim director of licensing, regulation and charging for TfL, in a statement. “The growth of ride-sharing and other advances mean that regulation has to be fit for the next decade and not the last.

“Our vision sets out clearly how we will manage these new developments that improve convenience for customers, while ensuring safety remains our top priority. The document also makes clear that any new developments in the sector have to fit with the objectives of the mayor’s Transport Strategy.”

Among London mayor Sadiq Khan’s wider transport objectives are reducing Londoner’s dependence on private cars generally, including in order to promote healthier mobility options such as cycling and walking, and also to make more efficient use of the city’s street space. Which makes Uber’s emerging interest in bike-sharing look like a prudent diversification of its urban mobility offering.

Another stated priority for Khan is improving London’s air quality — and the strategy document specifically anticipates dedicating more areas in central London to being entirely “traffic free”. (Last year, for example, the mayor announced that the highly congested and polluted Oxford Street shopping district would transition to being traffic free — with a goal to complete this by the end of 2018.)

Asked whether the transport strategy requires a reduction in the overall number of private hire vehicles on London’s roads to deliver its objectives, a TfL spokesman would not provide a direct answer to our question — saying only that the aim is to “make sure that whatever developments happen in the industry they complement the goals in the mayor’s transport strategy”.

But he also noted those goals do include a principle to “support mode shift away from car travel”.

He reiterated, too, that the regulator continues to support the idea of having a cap on the total number of private hire licenses — but said this would require primary legislation, adding that TfL continues to lobby government on that front. “To date they haven’t been minded to do so but that’s still our position,” he added.

For now there’s no firm timeline for TfL reworking London’s private hire vehicle regulatory framework. The spokesman said only that it will be giving more details on specific timelines for consultations cited in the documents “in the coming months”.

Asked whether Uber’s behavior as a company has fed into formulating the policy document, the spokesman said no one ride-sharing company is driving its thinking. “This is us at TfL saying what we think for the industry as a whole is required,” he told TechCrunch. “We want the regulation to be fit for the next decade, not the last decade.

“This is talking about the industry as a whole. We’ve seen it change a lot in the last few years — we’re expecting it to change a lot again in the next few years, so it’s making sure that we’re setting out our store.”

At the time of writing Uber had not responded to a request for its thoughts on TfL’s policy statement.



Uber launches a new lower-priced service called Chap Chap in Nairobi

17:06 | 13 February

Uber has launched a new, lower-cost service in Nairobi called Uber Chap Chap. Made possible by using a fleet of fuel-efficient budget sedans, Uber Chap Chap (Swahili slang for “hurry, hurry”) is currently available in several areas of the Kenyan capital, including its central business district.

Uber, which began testing the service at the end of January, may launch it throughout the rest of Nairobi and in the capital cities of Uganda and Tanzania if it proves successful, the company’s East Africa general manager Loic Amado told Reuters.

To make Uber Chap Chap possible, Uber worked out a deal with CMC Motors, a car importer based in Nairobi, to import 300 Suzuki Altos. An unglamorous but inexpensive and fuel-efficient hatchback sedan, the Suzuki Altos were offered to highly-rated Uber drivers with financing by Stanbic, a Kenyan bank, that allows them to own the vehicle in three years.

Since the Suzuki Alto can travel further on less fuel, Uber is able to offer Uber Chap Chap’s lower prices. The minimum cost for a ride on the service is 100 Kenyan shillings (about 99 cents), compared to 150 shillings ($1.48) for UberX.

In Kenya, Uber faces competition from ride-hailing services like Little and Taxify. Uber Chap Chap gives it another way to differentiate, though Uber’s Nairobi drivers have complained that launching lower-priced services undercuts their earnings.

Featured Image: Jacek_Sopotnicki/Getty Images



Heetch raises another $20 million to compete head-to-head with Uber in Europe

11:01 | 26 January

French startup Heetch has an ambitious goal. The company wants to become the second ride-sharing service in France and in the other European countries where it operates. The startup just raised $20 million from Félix Capital, Via ID, Alven Capital, Idinvest Partners and InnovAllianz. This is the same funding round as last year’s $12 million round, but new investors joined the round.

In order to stay competitive with Uber, Heetch is a bit cheaper than a normal UberX ride. But drivers still get paid more or less as much on Heetch and on Uber as the startup’s cut is only 15 percent.

This round shows that Heetch’s pivot might be working. The startup first operated as a purely peer-to-peer ride-sharing service. Anybody could become a driver, and there was no restriction on cars.

But a court in Paris forced Heetch to shut down the service back in March 2017. Heetch had already attracted a ton of users (and quite a bit of cash based on multiple sources).

That’s why Heetch started over with a more traditional offering. Now, Heetch only works with professional drivers and accepts rides 24/7. The company will be doubling the engineering team and launching in London with today’s funding round.

Heetch is currently available in 10 cities in 5 different countries — France, Belgium, Italy, Sweden and Morocco. In Casablanca, the company has chosen to partner with 19 taxi syndicates and give them access to Heetch to accept rides from a phone.

“We’re just about to add ‘boosts’ when demand is too high,” co-founder and CEO Teddy Pellerin told me. “But it’s different from Uber’s surge pricing. If the passenger doesn’t want to pay, they’ll have to wait or get a bit lucky. Also, the 15 percent driver commission only applies to base price. Drivers get 100 percent of each boost.”

Heetch isn’t the only Uber challenger in France. Chauffeur-Privé, Le Cab and Taxify are also all trying to take on Uber. But Pellerin told me that it looks like Heetch is currently getting more downloads in the App Store compared to all those challengers based on recent App Annie data. Heetch doesn’t pay for any download ad.

So it’s clear that Heetch wants to fight back and prove that it’s more than a peer-to-peer ride-sharing app that had to shut down. Now let’s see if the company can transform short-term growth into long-term users as the French market seems more crowded than ever.

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Former employees say Lyft staffers spied on passengers

00:36 | 26 January

Similar to Uber’s “God View” scandal, Lyft staffers have been abusing customer insight software to view the personal contact info and ride history of the startup’s passengers. One source that formerly worked with Lyft tells TechCrunch that widespread access to the company’s backend let staffers “see pretty much everything including feedback, and yes, pick up and drop off coordinates”.

When asked if staffers ranging from core team members to customer service reps abused this privilege, the source said “Hell yes. I definitely looked at my friends’ rider history and looked at what drivers said about them. I never got in trouble.” Another supposed employee anonymously reported on workplace app Blind that staffers had access to this private information and that the access was abused.

Our source says that the data insights tool log all usage, so staffers were warned by their peers to be careful when accessing it surreptitiously. For example, some thought that repeatedly searching for the same person might get noticed. But despite Lyft logging the access, enforcement was weak so team members still abused it.

Lyft tells TechCrunch that staffers in several departments that might need access to this data for their job have the ability to look up this information. That includes data analytics, engineering (particularly those working on fraud or investigations), customer support, insurance, and the trust and safety team. A Lyft spokesperson confirmed it’s investigating the issue and that there have been instances of enforcement in the past. They provided this statement:

“Maintaining the trust of passengers and drivers is fundamental to Lyft. The specific allegations in this post would be a violation of Lyft’s policies and a cause for termination, and have not been raised with our Legal or Executive teams. We are conducting an investigation into the matter.

Access to data is restricted to certain teams that need it to do their jobs. For those teams, each query is logged and attributed to a specific individual. We require employees to be trained in our data privacy practices and responsible use policy, which categorically prohibit accessing and using customer data for reasons other than those required by their specific role at the company.  Employees are required to sign confidentiality and responsible use agreements that bar them from accessing, using, or disclosing customer data outside the confines of their job responsibilities.”

The news raises serious questions about proper data privacy at Lyft. While occasional access to rider data can be essential to some roles at the company, like if someone loses an item, widespread and improperly restricted access could be seen as a violation of riders’ trust. Lyft has tried to position itself as the friendlier, more ethical alternative to Uber, but staffers may have engaged in the same shady behavior.

An image of Uber’s former God View program

Back in 2014, BuzzFeed broke news that Uber used a system called “God View” that let staffers see details about riders and their trips. That led to an investigation by the New York Attorney General’s office. It struck a settlement with Uber where the startup agreed to limit access to designated employees using multi-factor authentication, establish someone to supervise privacy of the system, and audit usage of it. Yet reports surfaced in 2016 that Uber employees were still abusing the system renamed “Heaven View”.

In early 2015, Lyft’s CEO Logan Green and President John Zimmer responded to questioning about data privacy at Lyft and Uber from Senator Al Franken, writing that “As recent events in our industry have made clear, customers may be justifiability concerned about a company making improper use of their trip data. We’ve taken this opportunity to reevaluate our own restrictions and protections to ensure that we are doing everything we can to keep our customers’ trip data safe.”

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Today, though, TechCrunch received a tip about a supposed Lyft staffer with either a Lyft email address or public Lyft job listing who was using anonymous workplace app Blind to blow the whistle about data privacy abuse at the company.

They claimed that staffers could use Lyft’s backend software to view unmasked personally identifiable information. This was said to be used to look up ex-lovers, check where their significant others were riding, and to stalk people they found attractive who shared a Lyft Line with them. Staffers could also see who had bad ratings from drivers, or even look up the phone numbers of celebrities. One staffer apparently bragged about attaining Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s phone number.

 Lyft employees are active on Blind, and wrong information is typically quickly challenged. But no one came out contradicting the original report beyond saying that that access was limited, logged, and audited, though it’s not clear to what degree.

Our source confirmed some of these practices to TechCrunch, saying they would check to see where their significant other was Lyfting to. “It was addictive. People were definitely doing what I was” they noted. New staffers were particularly keen to try it despite warnings to be careful.

The situation highlights how having policies against bad behavior inside fast-moving startups doesn’t necessarily prevent abuse. Diligent enforcement must also be undertaken despite the costs or time required.



Lyft Concierge, its ride-booking service for businesses, opens to all

22:14 | 16 January

Lyft today announced it’s expanding its Concierge program – the service that allows organizations to schedule rides for other people – to more business customers. First announced in 2016, the service was originally designed to help patients get to medical appointments, particularly in areas where they may not have a car of their own, like New York, where more than half of households are car-free.

The 2016 partnership between Lyft and the National MedTrans Network aimed to change that by offering seniors in NYC a way to get rides to their non-emergency medical appointments by way of the then new third-party web application, Concierge. Lyft’s partners use Concierge to request rides on behalf of those who don’t have smartphones or, otherwise, aren’t able to book rides for themselves for other reasons.

Since then, Lyft has partnered with other organizations, including JetBlue, CareMore, and GoGoGrandparent for similar objectives, including not only medical appointments, but also getting customers to meetings or making sure employees have a safe ride home.

Today, Lyft says this Concierge program is opening up to more organizations, instead of just a limited subset of partners.

This move will expand the reach of Concierge to more businesses, including smaller organizations.

To use the service, the business or organization in question has to first set up a Lyft Business account, and attach a payment card to be used for the rides they book.

They can then schedule rides as needed or book them in up to a week in advance. Concierge offers a variety of Lyft ride types, and the businesses can also access real-time ride tracking and 24-hour customer support, the company says.

The full launch of Concierge will greatly expand the types of businesses that book rides on behalf of others – going far beyond the original focus on medical appointments, which Lyft said impacted the 3.6 million Americans who struggle with getting rides to doctors.

For example, one of Concierge’s newer customers is the San Diego-based helicopter tour operator, Rotor Zen,  which now uses Lyft to get guests from hotels or their vacation rentals to the helicopter departure point, then drop them off when their tour is over.

Denver Health Hospital also began to use Concierge to get patients to appointments. Others like Senior Living and Comfort Keepers have been using the service to help the elderly stay active and get out and about in general.

A number of car dealerships, including City Toyota, and rental and insurance companies are Concierge users as well, to help distressed passengers get rides in emergency situations.

Beyond the variety of use cases Concierge offers, the expanded service represents another means for Lyft to compete its battle with other ride-sharing services, like Uber. In Uber’s case, it operates both Uber for Business and UberCENTRAL, the latter which is more of a direct rival to Concierge.

While Uber for Business is more focused on helping businesses find rides for employees, UberCENTRAL lets businesses of any size request, pay for and manage rides for their customers from a centralized dashboard.

For both companies, these business-initiated bookings represent another area of potential growth for their respective ride-sharing services and a source of increased revenue. So though Uber may have been first out of the gate with support for businesses of any size, it’s now not the only option in town.

The news follows another announcement from Lyft this morning, which claimed the company saw 375.5 million rides in 2017, or 130 percent growth year-over-year.



Passport, the technology business for city transit systems, raises $43 million

21:06 | 20 December

Passport, company that’s managing much of the technical aspects of how people pay to use public transportation resources in cities like London, Miami and Los Angeles, has just raised $43 million.

The money, from Bain Capital Ventures, will go to help the company expand its payment and transaction services nationally and internationally as cities and states wrestle with how new mobility technologies will transform vast portions of urban infrastructure and government income.

Passport’s back-end software manages everything from parking to ticketing to tolling in some of the most populous cities around the world.

The company has already landed big partnerships with car makers like Jaguar Land Rover, Porsche, Ford and GM to embed their software in the new display systems that are mandated for most cars by 2018, according to Bob Youakim, Passport’s chief executive officer.

As public transit moves to the management of autonomous fleets, private companies will need ways to link in to the management systems that city governments are using. And as autonomous vehicles eat into revenues from parking tickets and moving violations, governments will need access to vehicle systems to create new kinds of tolls to pay for the upkeep of transit infrastructure, Youakim said.

“You have to have that infrastructure built so that vehicles know,” Youakim said.

Autonomy also matters for state governments. Soon, an integrated billing system will allow for automatic payment on toll roads across the U.S. Passport is already working with the Pennsylvania Toll Pike on billing. “The toll road is very disconnected,” said Youakim. “The only thing that can bring that together is some sort of mobile-based system,” like the kind Passport provides.

Youakim said the money from the latest investment (which was all Bain Capital Ventures), will be used to develop new products and for strategic acquisitions.

As the company expands, expect to see more integrations with ride-hailing companies like Lyft, with whom Passport is already working on a project in Charlotte, NC.

“We’re working with all of the rideshare folks,” says Youakim. “It’s very new… all of this coming into transit.”

Cities are trying to find ways to hook into the information and entertainment displays cars are going to be required by law to include as part of the demand for rear view cameras and displays in vehicles.

These sensors and integrations are critical for cities as revenues from taxes and tickets decline. “Infrastructure [revenues] will come from tolling,” said Youakim. Cities will monitor drivers’ routes and tax based on usage of roads. It’s akin to what the city of London does with entry fees for vehicles there, Youakim said.

“To come into the city limits you get taxed,” he said. “All the different types of tolling are going to become more prevalent in the U.S.”

All of this becomes more vital as federal infrastructure spending is likely to decline, given the new tax bill that looks like it will be voted into law today. With federal coffers depleted from tax cuts, local governments will be left to fend for themselves to pay for roads, bridges and other means of transportation.

But all of this is in the future. For now, Passport has its hands full with metro-rail, tolling, ticketing, parking and projects that cities are trying to maintain as legacies from the 20th century urban infrastructure. The company and Youakim are just thinking ahead and laying the groundwork for the 21st century’s problems.

Already, Passport’s services have been embraced to the tune of $250 million in transit transactions on its current annual run rate. The company has customers in 450 municipalities.

Passport already has 100 employees on staff and plans to add 50 more within the next year.

“Having reviewed the industry Passport has emerged as the clear leader in the space and its culture speaks to our way of progressive thinking, which is a very powerful driver,” Bain Capital Ventures managing director Matt Harris said. “We believe Bob and his team have the industry experience and vision necessary to lead the revolution in this space.”


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