China's Didi to relaunch Hitch carpooling service this month

Manish Singh
In this picture taken on October 18, 2018, a driver working for ride-sharing company Didi uses his smartphone to choose the best driving route to bring a customer to his destination in Beijing. - Didi is a popular taxi and ride-sharing service in China that is operated via a smartphone app. (Photo by Nicolas ASFOURI / AFP) (Photo credit should read NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP via Getty Images)

Chinese ride-hailing firm Didi Chuxing said today it will conduct a trial relaunch of its Hitch carpooling service in seven major Chinese cities with additional safety features by end of the month, more than a year after suspending the service following the murder of a female passenger by her Didi driver.

The relaunch of the popular service Hitch, which was started in 2015 and has clocked more than a billion rides, follows a “comprehensive safety review and product revamp,” Didi said Wednesday. The company claimed its system can now identify high-risk scenarios and trip anomalies as well as support effective intervention. There’s also a new in-app Safety Assistant that shows detailed information on drivers and passengers and offers real-time support from safety specialists.

Additionally, during the trial, the Hitch service will only allow trips less than 50 kilometres (31 miles) in metro areas between 5am and 8pm for female users. Male users can enjoy the service till 11pm. The cities where Hitch will conduct the trial are Beijing, Harbin, Taiyuan, Shijiazhuang, Changzhou, Shenyang and Nantong.

Didi suspended the carpooling service after the murder of a female passenger in August 2018, a second such incident after another passenger was murdered only a few months prior. At the time, Didi also issued an apology for its “disappointing mistakes.” (Didi's other carpooling and general offerings were not suspended.)

The Chinese transport ministry lambasted Didi for the incidents, saying the firm had "lost control" of its drivers and vehicles. It said there had been multiple lapses in offline management of people and cars that had resulted in criminal and security cases. Didi said today it had alerted the authority about the trial re-run.

Hitch is a modern take on hitchhiking that lets a passenger ride for free with a driver headed in their direction. Passengers are encouraged to leave a tip to cover petrol, but the idea is to make each car ride more efficient. Didi doesn't monetize the service, but it is a strategic way to attract passengers and drivers who may use other services from which the firm does draw revenue.

The Chinese firm did not mention last year’s unfortunate incidents today, but noted that Hitch has become a “popular day-to-day commuter ride-sharing among China’s rising middle class.”

“Since then it has also become an important inter-city mobility solution as the country’s sustained urbanization process continues to drive regional integration and mass migration. During China’s 2018 Lunar New Year, 30.7 million Chinese took Hitch for their annual family reunion over the seven-day break,” it said.

Didi, which was valued at $56 billion earlier this year and claims to have amassed more than 550 million users globally, hasn't been able to turn a profit. The relaunch of a carpooling service could put the company, which has been backed by SoftBank and Uber, on the right track.