May 16, 2018 / 7:44 AM / in 3 months

Didi's Hitch scrubs social features as passenger murder dents image

BEIJING (Reuters) - China’s biggest ride-sharing company, Didi Chuxing, will disable features such as profile pictures, ratings and public tags from its carpooling service, as it looks to win back trust after the killing of a female passenger sparked questions about safety.

A man is seen in front of a Didi sign before a promotional event of its Hitch service for the Spring festival travel rush, in Beijing, China January 24, 2018. Picture taken January 24, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. CHINA OUT.

The 21-year-old flight attendant’s murder, allegedly by her driver, and revelations that Didi drivers have been reviewing female passengers based on their appearance, has marred the ride-hailing giant’s image at a time when it is preparing to take on rivals such as Uber Technologies [UBER.UL] overseas.

In a bid to make prompt amends, Didi has apologized for the “tragedy” and suspended the carpooling service for a week. The company on Wednesday said it will temporarily offer “Didi Hitch” between 6 am and 10 pm, instead of 24x7, and make daily facial recognition checks mandatory for all drivers.

Didi will extend facial recognition requirements to other services and redesign its emergency help function. The company, whose backers include Japan’s SoftBank Group Corp, has also proposed to record audio for every trip as an added security measure.

Didi has previously acknowledged its facial recognition tool was defective and as a result the male suspect who allegedly killed the female passenger was able to use a driver account belonging to his father without being detected.

SOCIAL NETWORKING SERVICE?

In the wake of the killing earlier this month, Didi has come under heavy criticism online, with many calling out the company for its efforts to market Hitch as a social networking service.

Adverts for Hitch dating back to 2015 on Didi’s official social media accounts present the carpooling service as a way to meet new people, including romantic encounters. Hitch allows users to hail a car via their smartphone and share a ride with someone else headed in the same direction.

One advert for the service, still visible on the verified Didi Hitch Weibo account on Monday morning, featured a male driver holding a sign reading “you have a short skirt, I have warm air ... give her a free ride, I’m willing!”

Other official social media posts asked users to share their experiences of carpooling with a stranger of the opposite sex and joked about the chemistry between older women and young male drivers, described as “young fresh meat”.

A Shanghai-based driver who formerly drove for Didi Hitch, Silla Wang, said he has seen drivers give passengers tags like “long legs”, “adorable girl” or “beautiful woman”.

“In my understanding the app is used as one would use Momo,” he said, referring to a Chinese Tinder-like dating app.

NO MORE PROFILE PICTURES

Didi has said profile pictures on the carpooling service will be replaced with generic images to bring an end to such rating and tagging of passengers.

Many users, however, said they had already removed their photos with some even leading calls to boycott the app.

Xu Yanan, a student at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, said that since the murder she had decided not to use a selfie on the app and had changed her photo to an image of a soldier.

“I want to protect myself. After the tragedy, I’m scared.”

Since acquiring Uber’s China business in 2016, Didi controls over 90 percent of the country’s ride-hailing market, giving users few alternative options, although new players have begun edging their way into the market.

Didi, valued at $50 billion, says its main carpooling services ExpressPool and Hitch had the equivalent of nearly 3 million rides a day last year. The overall Didi platform has near 25 million daily rides.

Reporting by Cate Cadell and Pei Li; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Himani Sarkar

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