Trusting strangers doesn't come naturally to Indians, especially urban residents. Considering the drumbeat of negative stories about how unsafe life in our cities is, it's not unexpected that we're wary of those we don't know. Which means we all understand that giving a hitchhiker a ride or stepping into a stranger's car is an action fraught with risks. For ride-sharing services that are hoping to expand massively in India over the next year, this is no small concern.

In addition to building an easy-to-use app, getting a critical mass of users and cars and a large enough geographical spread, a new crop of companies hoping to build their business on carpooling has to solve another problem: how to get Indians to trust each other.

With close to two crore motor cars in the country of over 1.21 billion people, the potential for carpooling is immense as it could help save costs, protect the environment and provide breathing space to our already overwhelmed public transport system. Many companies and startups have tried to solve the problem in the past but there hasn’t been a clear winner.

Now, however, there are a few worthy contenders. From the French inter-city ride sharing company BlaBlaCar’s entry into India last year to Mumbai’s intra-city office ridesharing service SmartMumbaikar, carpooling companies are trying to find solutions to the single biggest challenge: building elements of trust  in the system and ensuring security of the riders and car owners.

Trust deficit

While it doesn’t truly align with the way cab companies such as Ola and Uber work in India, their fast adoption has also paved the way for a lot of ridesharing hopefuls to be optimistic about their prospects as consumers seem open to newer services and technologies like never before. And the response has been more than encouraging in the short period of existence for international companies such as Bla Bla Car and Tripda.

“We were able to offer 1.25 lakh seats in the first 100 days after entering India,” said Raghav Gupta, Country Manager of BlaBlaCar which entered India at the beginning of the year. “People spread across more than 700 cities took our rides and we continue to grow at a very fast rate so the market isn’t small.” Even though the company is riding high on fast growth, it is yet to smoothen out some edges such as including a revenue model or ensuring availability of enough rides on short notice as well.

For instance, only three rides were available between Delhi-Chandigarh which is among the popular routes on a weekday and the cost varied from Rs 480 to Rs 640 for the same trip. Meanwhile there were plenty of rides from Mumbai to Pune over the weekend but only a couple on the weekdays indicating a still nascent state of adoption for the service.

Similar has been the experience of Tripda, a Brazil based startup present in 13 countries which entered India last November and has already seen 50-100% growth each month. “We grew at about 100% month-on-month in January-March quarter this year,” said Nitish Bhushan, Asia Manager of Tripda. “By the end of June, more than 90,000 rides were already offered on the platform.”

Tripda's user interface could be seen as cleaner than BlaBlaCar's but overall ride availability on popular routes seemed to be a bit worse. For instance, there were no Delhi-Chandigarh trips available on a Tuesday even though the company claims it is one of their popular sectors in addition to the Mumbai-Pune stretch which only had three carpools available.

While BlaBlaCar and Tripda focus on long distance inter-city rides, smaller Indian startups such as carEgiri focus on helping people pool rides while commuting to and from work in Pune and Bangalore. The service has been around for more than a year now but faces the same problem of getting people used to the idea of dropping a stranger on their way.

“With over 5,000 people registered on the platform, we have seen over 200 trips happening daily over the platform but habits are tough to change,” said Siddharth Jagtiani, founder of the platform adding that the company is finding it challenging to change habits and challenge preconceived notions about driving the car with a fellow rider whom you are meeting for the first time.  “Allowing people to ride with you is more difficult in India as assumed. With competition we hope more than one player will help in making that mindset change.”

Using Facebook to enforce trust

While it isn’t easy to trust virtual information completely for riders and owners, some companies have introduced a mandatory Facebook login so that they are able to scrape basic personal information about the user in addition to further checks and controls before allowing someone to step into the car.

Tripda, for instance, utilises Facebook, phone and email verification and user ratings to verify identity of people and collects user ratings after the trip to ensure that feedback mechanism incentivises good behaviour on the platform. “We are also going to verify corporate emails and LinkedIn soon and our community managers keep a check on the platform regularly to detect suspicious activity,” said Asia Manager Nitish Bhushan.

While the app accesses a lot of information, the company claims it doesn't use it. However, it could still be a tough choice for someone looking for a ride to go simply by the Facebook information on the site in absence of user reviews and ratings. Here, the corporate emails could help boost the trust factor a bit but for now that's missing.

BlaBlaCar also works on a similar model except that it plans to link bank accounts and credit cards for extra security once it puts its revenue model in place. “We find that user ratings make it easier for future travellers to know what kind of ride they are getting into and our numbers show that the system is working in India,” said Country Head Raghav Gupta.

Meanwhile Rideler, a young startup from Bangalore which caters to only corporate entities manually verifies each rider and even verifies owner’s vehicles and license on request. “User's corporate email address is mandatory and is verified separately,” said Sabari Girish Parampoor, co-founder of the company. “Moreover, on request we create a secure sandbox for specific companies, so employees of that firm share rides only with their co-workers.”

However, it is not only limiting in options to be able to ride with your own co-workers but also a bit challenging for the company to carry out manual verification once it scales up and hence more checks and balances might need to be built into the system through technology. Security and trust, it seems, is an ever-evolving process for these companies in India. For now, though, the riders are on their own – mostly.