Uber’s carpooling service is like fare-splitting for strangers

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Uber doesn’t want to be the bad guy anymore. The car-hailing app is constantly in the news for all the wrong reasons: A rogue driver takes his passenger along for a high-speed car chase or yet another user is surge-priced into oblivion. So its latest product launch, a carpooling feature called UberPool, is designed to make people feel better about using the app—and if Uber can stick it to Lyft in the process, so much the better.

How it works: UberPool is one of several options you’ll see at the bottom of Uber’s app, right next to UberX and Uber Black. When you request a car, Uber will try to match you up with a nearby rider “who just happens to be requesting a ride along a similar route.” It’s unclear whether you’ll have to enter your destination when requesting a ride—otherwise your driver might be dealing with two passengers heading in wildly different directions. Uber will tell you the name of your fellow passenger before you get picked up, but if the app can’t find a match for you, you’ll still get a discount.

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UberPool will soon appear as another option when you open the app.

Uber is positioning UberPool as a cost-effective and environmentally friendly way to get around town, and it’s probably both. You’re essentially splitting your fare—a feature that Uber first rolled out last summer—and taking cars off the road. The company called UberPool a “bold social experiment,” questioning in a Tuesday night blog post whether the service would get strangers to chat with each other.

But the new service is also a punch in the gut for Lyft, which was born from carpooling service Zimride. The company has made clear that it plans to return to those roots once it builds up critical mass.

“The big vision of Lyft started before Lyft ever launched with Zimride,” Lyft director of community relations Emily Castor told me during a May interview. “The vision there was to fill the empty seats in cars on the road. The fact is that 80 percent of seats are empty and we want to create efficiency by making better use of the cars that are out there. There’s a real challenge to start from scratch with no people in your marketplace—to go from that to trying to match people up in real time for rides along the same routes. We’ve built liquidity in this system to make sure that rides are reliably available and I’m very excited about the possibility to evolve back toward that ultimate vision of matching people up along the same route.”

Both Uber and Lyft claim that their end goal is to make it possible for people to give up car ownership, but can the two companies survive when they’re using the same strategies—carpooling, ridesharing, and premium services—in the same cities? UberPool also has Google backing, which could give the controversial company the upper hand.

UberPool is currently in private beta, but you can sign up to be notified when Uber starts testing the service more widely on Aug. 15.

This story, "Uber’s carpooling service is like fare-splitting for strangers" was originally published by TechHive.

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