Orbiting – Making carpooling more accessible through the use of technology

After two very tiring years of employment, I began planning for a short break in Europe towards the end of 2012. Anyone earning their income in Malaysian Ringgit will agree that it is not the strongest currency around, especially towards the west. With a tight budget, one of the most expensive aspects of the trip would be accommodation, airfare aside, and I needed to make every single Ringgit count. In my search for something affordable, that was when I came across Airbnb and the idea behind collaborative consumption in the modern age.

Collaborative consumption is not something new but enabling it with technology is. For those unfamiliar, collaborative consumption is basically a system in which additional capacity is shared, rented or swapped. In the case of Airbnb, people who have additional rooms in their homes (or even vacant properties) are linked with people who need a place to stay over a short term (ie. Tourists) allowing them to earn some additional income by the side to cover the ever increasing cost of living. All this through a computer or on a smartphone.

While I did not end up making use of Airbnb for that trip, the introduction to collaborative consumption through the use of technology quickly intrigued me and stuck in my mind. It is such a simple idea and makes such good sense, especially today. Not only is money arguably more difficult to come by but the explosive growth of the human population that is powered by a consumerist mindset is exerting an increased pressure on the Earth’s finite resources. So if you had some additional space or something that you make use of only every now and then, why not share it with someone who may need it while reducing your expenses at the same time?

This made me think about collaborative consumption and how it could be applied here in Malaysia.

Use cases for collaborative consumption in Malaysia

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Traffic Jam Malaysian Style by thienzieyung, on Flickr

One of the immediate things that came to my mind was cars. Here in Malaysia, we have been conditioned to believe that we must have a car and in many cases, I do believe that this is largely true. After all, our public transportation system is not entirely reliable or optimal and, unless your next appointment makes it alright to be drenched in sweat or rain, the weather makes walking and cycling unfeasible especially over longer distances.

This has led to a rapid growth of cars on the road even though, ironically, many acknowledge that the cost of owning and maintaining a car in Malaysia is not cheap. Not only has this growth increased the amount of pollutants in the air but it has also made our roads increasingly congested. I notice that traffic jams these days seem to last until much later in the evenings compared to before. And I do not think it is just my personal perception.

Have you ever noticed something while in traffic though? If you looked at the surrounding cars, you will notice that a large number of them are Single Occupancy Vehicles (SOVs), meaning cars with only one person in it. Obviously, a car can accommodate more than one person and you can imagine the amount of spare capacity available on the road. It is also highly likely that a number of these cars are headed off towards the same direction, if not destination.

It should then be pretty obvious that if we carpooled, not only could we reduce air pollution and our increasing transportation costs but we would also be making the roads less congested and thus making our rides much more pleasant. Even so, carpooling is not something that has really caught on in Malaysia.

Why then has carpooling not been embraced?

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Using cellphone as a clicker by alumroot, on Flickr

I think that there have been two major barriers here when it comes to carpooling: accessibility and safety.

Before the advent of the Internet, planning for carpools was probably an arduous task. Life then was decentralized making it difficult to connect people who were interested together. The Internet made it easier to link people together and there are already many carpooling sites and forums that have sprouted up over the Internet with varying degrees of activity. While it does work, it is not dynamic and journeys have to be planned well in advance through a computer screen.

And of course, there is the question of safety and this is especially relevant in Malaysia. When news about theft, robberies and such are heard almost every day, it is only natural to be fearful and worried about going for a ride with a complete stranger.

Thinking over these issues, I started to think of ways that could potentially overcome these barriers.

From an accessibility perspective, technology has progressed to such an extent that a large number of people today carry with them a powerful little computer wherever they go. No, I am not referring to a notebook but the ubiquitous smartphone instead, and you probably have one too. It may be tiny but it is incredibly powerful. Not only are they constantly online but with the GPS baked in, it can tell its owner where they are and what is around them.

From a safety perspective, today almost everyone has a Facebook account and, with the amount of information entered, it represents their online persona. With that, others are able to get an overview of who a person is, who their friends are and what kinds of interest they have even though these two people may have never met. Of course, I am not saying that this is foolproof as accounts can be faked but when this is combined together with other identifying information, I believe it makes trying to fake who a person is that much more difficult.

Together, these two can be used to create an app for smartphones that I believe tackles those two barriers mentioned as well as takes the concept of carpooling further. At the tip of your finger, you can find people around you who are interested in carpooling, whether they are offering a ride or looking for one. And before you decide to share a ride, you are able to see who are the people that you are sharing a ride with along with a rating about how they are perceived by other carpoolers.

Researching further, I found that that this was not an entirely new idea as there were already a few such services running outside Malaysia, or more specifically in the US. In fact, you may have already heard of companies such as Uber, Sidecar and Lyft.

I was very interested to bring this to Malaysia but the question was how well would this be accepted in Malaysia? Malaysia is arguably a very different country.

How well would this be accepted in Malaysia?

I tried to get some funding from a few different sources to develop and maintain this app but I was turned down. To be honest, I was not the least bit surprised. Before approaching these sources, I had spoken to various people across different groups about this and even then, the reaction was mixed; some thought it was a great idea while others thought otherwise. Apart from those barriers mentioned earlier, the Malaysian psyche is rather different. In general, I think Malaysians still believe in ownership and have not entirely warmed up to the concept of sharing. Many too are status conscious and the car is a status symbol.

Many have told me that this will fail and that it will not work but, apart from not wanting to say “it’s impossible” without first trying, one of the reasons why I decided to forge ahead was due to some rather unexpected things I found on Airbnb and Couchsurfing (a service that is quite similar to Airbnb).

While researching this idea, I looked through the listings on both those services to explore its usage within Malaysia. To my surprise, there were over 200 listings on Airbnb in Kuala Lumpur even back then (this was probably early to mid 2012). There were even listings outside of Kuala Lumpur, in cities like Ipoh and Penang. The number on Couchsurfing was less but there was still a small but active community.

If services such as these, services that linked people to a complete stranger and inviting them over to stay in their homes no less, were acceptable by this small group of Malaysians, maybe there too would be a group of Malaysians who would be receptive to this modernised way of carpooling.

In the end, I decided to fund this development on my own by saving some money over the past year.

Introducing Orbiting – the on-demand carpooling / ridesharing service

With that very lengthy prologue aside, I would like to introduce this pet project which I have christened Orbiting, a new carpooling service that aims to link people who are interested in carpooling (also referred to as ridesharing), whether that person is looking for a ride or provide one. The primary objective of Orbiting is to reduce the number of SOVs on the road by making carpooling more accessible. Consequently, this reduces travelling expenses as well as the amount of pollution generated while allowing people to make new like-minded friends along the way.

Some of the features of Orbiting include:

  • Uses Facebook Connect to login to use your online social identity and reputation
  • Search and request for rides on-demand or simply schedule one for a later time
  • See all drivers and passengers close by and make direct offers or requests
  • Know the shared costs and who you are sharing a ride with before accepting
  • Correlates information from Facebook to show how much users have in common
  • Review drivers and passengers at the end of each ride to maintain a trusted community

I had to cut back on certain features due to my limited budget but I do hope that I will be able to add them in future releases if the response is good enough.

These are some of the screenshots from the app:

Looking for some beta testers and early adopters

After a few months of development, the app is almost complete but before releasing the app to the general public, I am looking for a small group of people to participate as beta testers or even those who would like to be early adopters. The beta test will probably run across two sessions.

The first session is basically just a social and introductory session for everyone to familiarise themselves with other participants as well as to provide an overview of how to use the app. This will lead to the second session (not on the same day), where we will actually make use of the app itself for some live tests within a small location. After the beta testing has completed, you are free to continue making use of the app.

If you are interested, I hope to hear from you. And if you know anyone else who might be interested, I would be happy to hear from them too. Please write a comment in this article, or send me an email (all my contact info is in my profile page).

Thanks for reading.

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