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July 18, 2016

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Home » Business » Autotalk Special

Conversations bud when strangers’ paths cross

IN the past few months, when license-plate restrictions grounded me from driving my own car, I got around by “hiring” drivers from Uber and its Chinese equivalents Didi and Yidao.

At first, it was just a matter of economy. Getting a ride from a private car owner on mobile apps can be cheaper than hailing a taxi at the street.

But I quickly discovered an unexpected bonus for a journalist on such journeys. The rides with ordinary people seeking to make some extra cash from their cars opened up a trove of interesting, sometimes intimate, insights into the people of Shanghai.

It seems that many part-time chauffeurs are anxious to share their stories with passengers, and often intimacy is easier in impersonal encounters with total strangers we may never meet again. Unlike cab drivers, who are expected to be professionally invisible—though in many cases, they aren’t—car-for-hire drivers tend to play the role of host. They are in their own cars, so giving passengers the cold shoulder almost seems rude.

A typical ride usually starts with small talk. The weather. Traffic conditions. As the conversation warms up, questions often become more personal. “Are you married?” “What do you do for living?” “How much money do you make every month?” I normally don’t like to answer personal questions from strangers, but I never felt offended. Sometimes, I just played along.

Expressed another way, when I hired private rides, I thought of it as a Snapchat experience. A brief but shared acquaintance in a friendly atmosphere. I never knew drivers’ names. The driver and I could exchange some unfiltered thoughts and moments in our lives, like on Snapchat, and not carefully orchestrated versions meant to impress, like the edited ones on Instagram.

The rides also gave me the opportunity to explore up close the reasons so many car owners are willing to become de facto taxi drivers.

“How can you manage to do this part-time job when you are supposed to be at work?” I asked many a driver because I was indeed puzzled.

“I sneaked out,” said a BYD driver as he drove me to a 3pm interview. “I have a very idle job at a state-run company. But don’t be envious. It doesn’t pay much.”

A parking pass on the windshield confirmed his employment. Not all the answers I got were to be believed. Some drivers told me they delayed going to work. Some said they had left work early. Some said they were just slacking off.

I couldn’t help but wonder if it was all worth it.

“That depends on how much money you make,” said a Cadillac driver. “For a premium car like mine, the fare is very high. So the gains from cheating the app are also very high. Once in a while, I do misbehave. ”

It is no secret in China that car-for-hire apps are plagued with abuses related to the hefty subsidies they give both passengers and drivers. It’s pretty easy to cheat the system by claiming rides that don’t exist. Drivers found to be scamming the system have their online accounts frozen, but the temptation to cut corners is still very high.

My friend Alex and I once devised a scheme for cheating a car-for-hire app, which we thought would bend the rules but not break them.

The plan was this: Whenever Alex gave me a lift as a friend, he would pose as a driver on the car-for-hire app, and I would be the customer. Later on, he would return the money I paid online for his “service,” and he would also get the subsidy from the app. Technically, an actual ride did exist.

Just for fun

We never implemented the scheme because we didn’t think the gain was worth all the complications. However, months later, Alex told me he had upgraded the plan. He had “spent” several hundred yuan sitting in his passenger accounts for a car-for-hire app, and then earned the money back, along with hefty subsidies, by using his two mobile phones to act as driver and passenger at the same time. He drives a BMW, which means several hundred yuan is just enough to buy a few fictional rides with himself.

“I did real car-for-hire part-time,” he confided. “This is just for fun.”

I guess what he enjoyed most was the bit of mischief. For most of the drivers I met, fun is also a big motivation alongside earnings. It means company on the road.

I have heard urban legends about supercar owners posing as economy car drivers on car-for-hire apps in order to pick up pretty girls at nightclubs. And how start-up bosses ambush rival companies to chauffeur customers they could recruit.

For those of you thinking that any of my hired drivers resulted in relationships beyond chitchat, I am sorry to disappoint you.

I once met a Chevrolet driver who was so eager to show me the picture of his son, who was about my age, that I had to stop him from juggling his driving with matchmaking efforts.

An Infiniti driver once asked me to look at his online retail business, turning the journey into an in-depth consumer survey.

And once in Beijing, a Volkswagen driver hit on me for the whole ride, while I remained coolly disinterested. It was morning rush hour on the opening day of the annual auto show. I was running late and lucky to find a ride at all.

“I guess you are in it for the money as well as the girls,” I finally said. “But this is all too much for me.”

“You are damn right,” he replied, “but it never hurts to try.”

I thought about filing a customer complaint against him to the app, but I didn’t do that. If his car hadn’t turned up when it did on the app as the only available driver nearby, I would have missed important interviews.

In this age of Internet, the concept of the “sharing economy” is gaining traction. It means that the paths of strangers are more likely to cross. There are so many reasons why it’s comforting to have someone to keep us company on the way through life. As a social species, we were never meant to be alone. Life is an exchange of values, of needs and sometimes even of deepest secrets.

Even on the short leg of a journey, we have someone to share with.


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