Working to make ride-hailing safer, better for all

Ying Tianyi
Ying Tianyi
A healthy and prosperous ride-hailing market requires both more rigorous safety surveillance and more competitive alternatives.
Ying Tianyi
Ying Tianyi

At a press conference yesterday, the Ministry of Transport revealed that following an inspection since September 5 of all ride-hailing websites and web-based ride-sharing platforms, the regulator had identified problems and hidden security hazards in nine aspects.

These include hidden public security hazards, tremendous risks involving ride-sharing services, inadequacies in coping with emergencies, illegal operations, utter lack of faith and honesty on the part of platforms, passenger data security, and monopoly.

Meanwhile, it was recently announced that Didi Chuxing is pushing forward with its reforms, especially on driver credentials and criminal history. The firm is also trying to make it easier for passengers and drivers to call the police with “the push of a button,” or for police to access vital information.

These are positive measures, even though they are neither original, nor new. The background check on drivers, for instance, is simply in line with regulations that took effect a couple of years ago.

My own experience also suggests that it would be hard for Didi to come to grips with its many problems in the absence of sincerity.

I am thinking of the night on September 8, the day when Didi abruptly suspended its late-night ride services for a weeklong rectification. It left me in the lurch. That night when I left a theater on Nanjing Road, near the Bund, public transport had stopped operating. The first taxi driver stunned me by asking for 100 yuan (US$14.60) for a three-kilometer ride, which normally cost 14 yuan. When I refused to pay that much, he simply turned me out. I made two additional attempts, in vain, and finally got home by walking.

The suspension had been announced four days previously after public outrage over a woman raped and killed by a Didi driver on August 24 in Yueqing, Zhejiang Province. That was the second such tragedy in three months.

Ironically, the sudden suspension not only led to chaos and complaints, but also an unusual amount of “nostalgia,” when quite a few people wrote fondly of the “good old times” when Didi was available. Was this outpouring of sentiment spontaneous, or was it just a successful public relations stunt?

A subsequent CCTV investigative report concluded that it was probably a ploy designed to take advantage of the overwhelming pressure the firm had faced in the wake of the tragedies.

If that was its intention, the platform was successful, at least during the few days immediately after the suspension.

There had been broad hints that in the absence of Didi future rides would be difficult and expensive. Then there were signs the firm had overreached itself.

To begin with, according to the CCTV analysis, Didi was suspected of irregularities in stopping its routine service without first notifying the regulatory authority 30 days in advance. The chaos in the wake of its suspension also suggested the disrupting potentials of any firm with a de facto monopoly.

In a matter of six years, Didi has grown into a market leader in the car-hailing industry that holds over 90 percent of the market, with 7.43 billion trips in 2017.

It has been so dominating that its suspension could easily lead to confusion, hence the regulatory requirement in 2016 that companies must submit written reports to local authorities 30 days before any suspension of service. Didi’s temporary halt without prior announcements constituted a violation of the rules.

Didi has since come up with a number of measures to beef up its security.

These include limiting late-night trips to drivers who have completed at least 1,000 rides with no complaints over six months or longer. In addition, the company has made real-time audio recording during the whole trip compulsory. The recording will be uploaded to the platform and deleted after seven days if no issues are reported.

We need more time to conclude whether these measures work.

One thing is sure: A healthy and prosperous ride-hailing market requires both more rigorous safety surveillance and more competitive alternatives.

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