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GrabTaxi, Uber’s main rival in Southeast Asia, announced at a press event in Singapore today that its new carpooling service will launch in the city by the end of the year, with registration open to drivers from today.
The announcement represents GrabTaxi’s entrance into the peer-to-peer ridehailing space. It has, until now, worked mainly with taxi fleets and private car operators (also private motorbike companies in markets like Jakarta, Indonesia).
The new carpooling service, called GrabHitch, will essentially challenge Uber’s carpooling service, UberPool, which has not yet launched in Singapore (or any Southeast Asia market, for that matter), though it is already available in 12 cities globally, including locations in Asia like Chengdu, China.
But when we asked whether GrabTaxi would be including criminal record checks as part of the screening process for new GrabHitch drivers, cofounder Tan Hooi Ling said that there are currently no plans to implement that security step. At the very least, drivers will not be getting checked for criminal records at the time the new service rolls out later this year.
That’s slightly worrying for a new P2P ridehailing service in 2015. Safety is still a hugely sensitive issue for the space as a whole, with horrendous examples of an Uber driver raping a passenger in India, and as well as a reported case in China.
That said, it seems like in this case it’s the laws in Singapore that are to blame rather than GrabTaxi itself. Commenting on the issue, Uber spokesperson Karun Arya told VentureBeat that, “In Singapore, private companies are not allowed to check/access ‘criminal records’. Uber has requested the Land Transport Authority and the Ministry of Transport for this numerous times in the past, though.”
But Uber says it does do criminal record checks on drivers in every market where the regulations allow that — “Usually through a third-party vendor that specializes in background screenings, e.g. First Advantage.” Arya also highlighted how UberPool and GrabHitch differ:
[GrabHitch] is giving other people options to use their personal cars for transport (without any commercial insurance or background checks on the drivers). The fare, as well, is based on an agreed amount between the driver/owner and the passenger. For UberPool, we use essentially the existing UberX supply. That means driver partners have gone through the same background screening, checks, and training as any other driver partner on the platform.
In other words, UberPool just taps into the platform’s existing driver base — they can also choose to give regular individual rides through UberX — whereas GrabTaxi doesn’t have an existing community of P2P drivers to tap, so is having to start from scratch.
These GrabHitch drivers will also be less likely to be driving full-time for GrabTaxi (indeed, under this model they are not supposed to be profiting from the service) in the way that UberPool drivers likely are.
Instead, under the GrabHitch model, we’re more likely to see drivers who are simply looking to offset the cost of their daily commute to the office (or a soccer game, for example) by opening up their free seats to commuters travelling along the same, or similar, routes.
Clearly, GrabHitch is legally sound at the time of launch — a new service like this could not be rolled out without approval by, or close liaison with, local government bodies. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be open to scrutiny.
A startup like GrabTaxi, which has secured hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital funding (and likely commands an internal valuation of well over $1 billion, making it one of the few “unicorns” in Southeast Asia), has a serious responsibility to protect its passengers.
Even if the Singapore regulations are largely at fault, the issue needs to be resolved quickly now that the service launch is confirmed. Yes, Singapore is a very safe city, generally, but the company shouldn’t wait for an incident to occur before making sure passengers are properly protected when using its P2P ridehailing service.
As of the latest numbers shared today, GrabTaxi operates in 28 cities in Southeast Asia (across six countries), with 160,000 drivers on its platform and nine million mobile downloads. Cofounder Anthony Tan told reporters at the press event that this makes it the “largest on-demand transport app in Southeast Asia.”
Update: A GrabTaxi spokesperson wished to clarify the following in an email to VentureBeat:
The Singapore police do not release personal information to third parties. GrabTaxi ensures that potential GrabHitch drivers must provide documentation including driving licence, motor registration, and insurance for review by the GrabHitch team. There will also be further verification checks for major traffic offences, in order to ensure the safety of passengers. All drivers and passengers will be continually verified by our feedback system.
Both parties must link their Facebook accounts, which enables both drivers and passengers to see a profile of the other party and their mutual friends. This helps to ensure the other party is a real person. Both parties can also indicate that they only want to travel with the same gender. Safety remains GrabTaxi’s number one priority, and we recently committed a $6 million investment in safety initiatives such as new app features and driver training initiatives.
GrabHitch is part of the GrabTaxi platform, and has access to the same robust safety standards as our other services – including feature enhancements through their app like the ‘share my ride’ live tracking, regular evaluation of driver review ratings, and driver checks and verifications.”
Fares for GrabHitch trips are based on the distance of the journey. The per kilometre cost is based on the fuel cost and the cost of depreciation of the car (cost of carriage). This fare is stated upfront and the passenger can choose to confirm the booking only if he/she is comfortable with the fare… GrabHitch drivers undergo the same robust safety standards as other services on the GrabTaxi app platform, regardless of whether they are using their personal cars.
(But this update still doesn’t address the lack of criminal checks for GrabHitch drivers…)
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