Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

Sunil Paul’s SideCar Ride-Sharing App Will Flag a Stranger’s Car for You

After my last meeting on Friday in downtown San Francisco, a stranger pulled up to the curb driving a blue Lexus. I hopped into the car, got a ride home and paid the suggested donation of $14 with my phone.

It was way less weird than I expected.

The guy who gave me the ride was an incredibly friendly fellow named John Robertson, who was driving for a start-up called SideCar, which has built an alternative to taxis, with cars driven by regular people and hailed using smartphone apps. SideCar launches to the public today in the San Francisco Bay Area.

At a SideCar employee’s suggestion — I should admit that my Friday afternoon meeting had actually been at SideCar’s office — I sat in the front seat of Robertson’s car and chatted him up.

Robertson told me he recently retired after 30 years as a project manager at UPS, and quickly got bored. He now generally drives five or six hours per morning with SideCar, and golfs in the afternoon.

Robertson said he lives in the East Bay, and has used the driving as a chance to get to know San Francisco better. He only makes $80 or so per session — which isn’t great, minus the cost of gas — but he doesn’t do it for the money, but rather because he believes in what SideCar is doing.

And Robertson meets all sorts of interesting people — during the beta period, lots of Twitter and Google employees, where word about SideCar apparently spread quickly through their SF offices.

SideCar is run by Sunil Paul, the serial entrepreneur and investor behind companies like Brightmail, who in recent years has been exploring cleantech and now the “cleanweb.” Paul first worked on getting California legislation changed to allow car sharing, and tested a start-up in that space called Spride, but then decided the more transformative and potentially lucrative opportunity was around sharing rides within an online community rather than borrowing people’s cars.

If you ask Paul, the idea for a ride-sharing start-up first occurred to him in 1999 — and he actually received a patent on some aspects of it in 2002.

After sitting on the idea for some 10 years, Paul recently invested and became CEO of a University of Michigan transportation research spinoff called Shepherd Intelligent Systems — now SideCar.

SideCar has been in testing since February, with more than 10,000 rides to date. In San Francisco, SideCar isn’t nearly as fast as Uber, but rides can be booked in “minutes to 10s of minutes,” as Paul described it.

As seems to happen with many timely ideas, there is a direct SideCar competitor that also just launched — it’s called Lyft, and is made by the start-up Zimride. I tried Lyft yesterday, and from a user’s perspective, it seems almost identical.

There’s one key difference between SideCar and the competition, at least according to Paul. After all the work he did with car sharing, he knows the regulations around collaborative consumption and transportation backward and forward, and SideCar’s payment system is apparently more strictly built to abide by existing laws.

The way it works is that SideCar automatically and dynamically computes a suggested payment that averages what other people have paid for the same kind of ride. This sidesteps the company and the driver setting a price for the ride, in order to avoid commercial vehicle restrictions. SideCar takes a 20 percent cut.

Users don’t have to pay for the ride, but if they don’t, drivers are unlikely to give them a good rating, and they’re less likely to be picked up the next time they request a ride. (Lyft has the same policy.)

Of hinging his company’s business model on an optional donation, Paul said, “The capitalist in me is scared silly of that idea, but the human being says you can trust people.”

Another nice feature of SideCar is an easy way for riders to share their ETA with a friend and send them a live online map of their progress in the car. This looks a lot like Glympse, and helps people reassure themselves that someone knows where they are while they’re in a stranger’s car.

Paul is being somewhat secretive, even as SideCar opens to the public, and won’t disclose how much funding he’s raised or how many employees he has. He did give me a long list of investors, which includes his own Spring Ventures, Huron River Ventures, SV Angel, Lerer Ventures, First Step Fund, Jeff Clarke, Lisa Gansky, Robert Goldberg, Jared Kopf, Konstantin Othmer, Mark Pincus, Martin Roscheisen, Josh Silverman and Thomas Varghese.

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