A Conversation With David Mahfouda of Weeels

Last weekend at TranspoCamp East, I met David Mahfouda, co-founder of Weeels. Weeels is a Brooklyn-based taxi-sharing service that launched a year ago. To use it, you just tell the system where you are, where you want to go, and when, and it matches you with a rider going your way. The two (or more) of you split the cab fee. Money is saved, gas is saved, congestion is decreased – a win-win-win.

I love the idea of Weeels, so last night I called David for a conversation about the company and the future of ridesharing, and thought I’d post the conversation here.

I might like to do more conversations like this, though this one took a loooong time, so unless I find a more efficient way to do it, this will have to be the only one for now. But let me know if you like it or not, so I can factor that in to my thoughts about doing more.


John: So David, what do you see transportation looking like in five years? How do you think it’s going to be different than it is now, and how do you see Weeels fitting into that?

David: Well, the reason I started thinking about vehicles and roads is because we have so many of them in this country. So the real thesis behind Weeels is to just get more utility out of our existing infrastructure. And primarily that’s a behavioral shift. So we’re using technology, but a lot of the stuff that we’re doing could be accomplished without technology, simply with behavioral shifts. Though the technology really does make it a lot easier.

John: The reason I like Weeels so much is that it’s pretty easy to see that more people would share rides if it were just easier to do it, and that’s one of the things Weeels tries to do is just make it easier to share, to bring down the cost to the individual of sharing.

David: Right, and a big thing the technology does is lower the social barriers to sharing, cause now that we have social networks, and we have a lot of information about our peers, it’s much easier I think to get a sense of who you might be getting into a vehichle with.

John: Right. Now is that something that Weeels has integrated into their platform yet?

David: It is something that we’ve intergrated. You can currently sign in with your Facebook Connect and it will pull all of your facebook data, so that other users can reference that data.

John: And what seems like the killer ridesharing app is being able to share rides with friends or with friends of friends. So you know I’ve got, say, 300 facebook friends, maybe 200 of which live in New York City, and each of them has 200 Facebook friends as well. So that’s a network of 40,000 – that’s a very big network of friends of friends that can be driving around. And who wouldn’t want to share a ride into the city with a friend of a friend? The two of you could talk about your mutual friend the whole time. Is that someting that Weeels can do right now or is going towards doing?

David: Yeah, it’s definitely something we’re working towards doing. There aren’t subnetworks currently, so we’re still reviewing people on a case-by-case basis, but that’s definitely something that we’re building into future versions.

John: That would be awesome.

David: And I want to say something about cabsharing. Currently the way weeels sees it, there’s basically 2 models for ridesharing: there’s peer-to-peer ridesharing and there’s FHV ridesharing, which is for-hired vehicles ridesharing. And basically the way I understand it is that these two markets are going to converge pretty significantly in the next five years, because currently there’s no industry regulation on peer-to-peer ridesharing, and the structure of p2p ridesharing is actually incredibly similar to FHV ridesharing. There’s a driver who’s basically charing a fee for a passengert to get into his or her car.

John: P2P ridesharing is basically carpooling with a little bit of cash exchanged, right?

David: Yeah. The only distinction is that the ridesharing we’ve been designing around is more ad-hoc – people aren’t necessarily taking pre-arranged trips. And some of the more interesting digital solutions, and the thing that truly feel new are the solutions that allow you to organize these things in realtime.

But p2p solutions have run into industry resistance. They’ve run into taxi lobbies and such.

John: Right – because they’re a disruptive force on the industry, so of course the lobbies will try to stop them. But there’s also a valid concern on cities’ parts that this is a new sector that is totally unregulated and that’s a big question. Is that something that needs to be regulated, and do regulations need to be brought into the 21st century to make this work?

David: Right, so I think yes, and that’s something governments can do, which is basically make it safe for people to get into other people’s cars by screening drivers, by officially regulating – and the thing is they do this, they do this in the FHB industry, and I think the standards they’re applying to the FHB industry will be applied to everyday drivers, which will increase the perceived safety of getting into other people’s vehicles.

John: Also I feel like there’s a crossover between government regulation and feedback systems on the web, and maybe feedback systems, where you can have transparency and see you know that this guy has had ten rides, and has gotten five stars from everybody, and has shared rides with people you know – maybe that’s some sort of modern version of regulation.

David: Right, that’s actually something that the existing FHB industry is working on – they want to get more user feedback and more ridership feedback. It’s something they’re struggling with. But it’s something that as the P2P industry grows, is going to have to be foundational for that industry, and I think you’ll see a cross-pollinations, both the industry that is more governmental and the industry that is more entrepreneurial, they’re both going to rely on these feedback mechanisms.

John: Well there’s definitely a coming shakeup of the industry. So what’s your approach for growth right now, given that as you say some of these changes are still a couple of years away?

David: We have a really great opportunity in the next two months with the city of Hoboken. We’re focusing on very specific problems that we can solve using very similar technology, with technology that we think is going to be applicable wholesale to urban vehicle transit in general. And so one example of this is we’re building a smart line-management stand outside Hoboken’s PATH station. And essentially it’s like the line management systems you might see in line at Whole Foods. Basically it packages riders in advance of them getting into vehicles according to the destinations that they’re heading to. And basically people that are willing to share are incentivized because they get to skip to the head of the line. So it basically makes sharing faster, and as a result makes the entire line faster.

John: Wow, that’s very cool, though it’s also pretty different from the Weeels that I am familiar with.

David: Well, more and more as we’re continuing to develop products and grow the company, we realize that really what we’re focused on is – we’re not primarily focused on building apps, what we’re interested in is efficient behaviors and smart behaviors, so really by whatever means necessary. We happen to have technology chops, but there are a lot of solutions that are dumb and effective.

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John Geraci

David just pointed out that I started transcribing “FHV” as “FHB” midway through the conversation. FHV = For-Hire-Vehicles. FHB = …..?

Corrected on my blog, cannot correct on GovLoop, so pls excuse the typo.