Business / Industries

From nervy taxi-user, to car-hailing convert

By MENG JING (China Daily) Updated: 2015-07-29 14:06

I have harbored a long-standing distrust of taxi drivers, because when I was little my "tiger mother" told me traumatic stories about how young girls who got into strangers' cars ended up being kidnapped, losing a kidney, or even being killed.

Even though I suspected the odds of being a victim of such atrocities were less than one in million, I was still terrified.

When I grew up and made my way from small-town girl to strong-working woman in Beijing, I was still discreet about taking a taxi by myself, especially at night.

The idea of getting into a confined space with a stranger and a steering wheel not under my control, even today makes me edgy.

So when Didi Kuaidi, China's largest car-hailing service provider, launched its Kuaiche service recently, I had no intention of trying it out at first.

The service gives individual car owners an opportunity to make money by offering chauffeur services like professional taxi drivers.

Using the application you can essentially book a ride from the nearest stranger-and to me, it sounded even less reassuring than a normal taxi.

As a reporter, however, who covers the tech sector it's my duty to cover anything new to the market.

And so I invited my husband to try it out with me, and to my surprise, I have become an instant fan.

Not only is the app convenient for people to book a ride, the cost is much lower than taking a taxi. Without owning a car, the experience of commuting in Beijing-notorious for its bad traffic-has immediately been improved as a result.

No driver says no to your request to go to a certain destination, because the app can match users' demands with what drivers can offer.

With the arrival of mobile technology, China is rapidly moving into the era of a "sharing economy", in which people can rent cars, apartments and other assets from one another via the Internet.

Though there are still no official statistics about the size of this economy, investors are more than confident in its potential, prompting Didi Kuaidi to announce it has just raised $2 billion in its latest round of fundraising.

Such collaborative consumption is good for several reasons.

Car owners can make money from their unused assets. And users can save a lot of time and money without the meddling of middlemen.

There are environmental benefits, too, especially in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai.

There were 5.37 million registered cars in the capital last year, in a city of more than 21 million people.

It is clearly a bad idea for everyone or every family to own a car. But equally it's certainly not fair to deprive anyone of the right to own his own vehicle.

My husband, like many, has been hoping to hit the jackpot and win a license plate via Beijing's vehicle registration lottery system. But since starting to use Didi's Kuaiche service, he has stopped being so frustrated by the long wait.

"You can get a car whenever you need; you don't need to pay for parking; and there are no maintenance costs either," he now says.

For me, though, the most important benefit of this new component in the sharing economy is that it cures my long-standing distrust of strange drivers.

The app makes me feel perfectly safe as I can check the ratings of each "stranger" before getting into his car, and the GPS system can tell me my exact location along the way.

There are certainly loopholes in such a business model.

It is difficult, for instance, to regulate individual driver behavior and standardize services and offerings because it is still mostly a peer-to-peer business. In fact, the government has yet to give its green light to this kind of operation.

But with the innovation of a regulatory structure and greater cooperation by service providers, the car-hailing industry may be heading for a very bright future indeed.

Now I'm ready to take a bigger step.

In a month's time my husband and I are going to Japan on holiday, and we've booked a shared apartment, online, from a complete stranger.

But I'm actually not the teensiest bit nervous of the adventure.

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