Walking out of the bar in the middle of the night, drunk, cold, tired and just wanting to get home as soon as possible - we've all been there. But you may wait by the road for a long time, perhaps getting swept up in the sandy winds, before finally seeing an available taxi headed your way.
Ever hope you could just shake a wand and a car would pull over for you? Well, a few cab-hailing mobile apps can help you realize your Hogwarts fantasy. Such apps in Beijing include Didi Dache, Yaoyao Zhaoche, Dudu Jiaoche and Yida Chuxing. They accept orders from users and broadcast the requests to the drivers who have the same app on their phones.
Didi Dache, one of the earlier apps to hit Beijing, launched in September 2012 with 200 test cabs and a few hundred users. Since then, it has expanded to include more than 600,000 users and 12,000 drivers, about one sixth of Beijing's taxis. They hope to cover more than half of Beijing cabbies by the end of the year.
Many cab-calling apps are hoping to make their mark in the field. Metro Beijing takes a few of them for a spin.
At your service
Didi Dache records your location and destination, and allows you to send a voice message to hundreds of taxi drivers equipped with the app in the area. Once a driver picks up your order, the driver's information will be sent to your phone. If no one picks up, you can choose to send out your message again, wait awhile or pay extra money to coax a cabbie your way.
Yaoyao Zhaoche allows wannabe-passengers to nab a cab by just shaking their smart phones. It also has a system for people to add 5 yuan ($.80) or more to attract drivers. But the problem is, this app covers both the legitimate and the unlicensed cabs. To avoid any trouble, you need to specify in your message that you want marked cabs only.
Dudu Jiaoche's user interface is not as user-friendly as the previous two, requiring users to manually type in their location and destination instead of using voice recordings. It might be good for making reservations but not as helpful when using it on the fly. It also charges an extra dispatching fee.
All three apps support both iOS and Android systems.
Using apps sometimes helps to get cabs faster than traditional ways, but it's still hard during rush hours, said Zhao Ying, a public relations officer in Beijing, who often uses cab-hailing apps when getting to and from work.
Speaking from her experience, Zhao said that pre-arranged reservations are more easily picked up by the drivers, since it's more convenient for drivers to arrange times than to drop everything for a new dispatch.
Another little trick is that, if you are not in a big hurry, you should include in your message that you can wait 10 extra minutes, Zhao told Metro Beijing.
Apparently, now apps have been an important alternative for many drivers. Every week, hundreds of drivers register to be verified, said Zhuo Ran, marketing manager of Xiaoju Technologies, the company behind Didi Dache.
"We verify the name, plate number, driving license number and other information of our applicants," she said, noting that every taxi under Didi Dache is legit.
Problems to solve
"It's a good thing to have the apps. It reduces the chances of driving on the road without customers, which helps to save energy," said Sui Shougang, a taxi driver in Beijing for 12 years.
Sui has tried three apps in the past few months. So far, he has used Didi Dache, Dudu Dache and Yida Chuxing - the latter being the one he uses most now. But he found them not as effective as he expected. For one thing, the apps drain the phone's battery quickly, Sui said.
"I turned it off for most of the time," said Sui. He found the broadcasting to be "too annoying" since each reservation order is reported to every driver in the city.
Real-time orders are only delivered to drivers within a 5-kilometer radius. Zhuo insists that during non-peak hours like late at night, the 5-kilometer radius is necessary.
Zhao, the work commuter, is often worried about her safety as new orders are constantly popping up on the phone screens of drivers, potentially distracting them.
Zhuo said to tackle this problem, they updated their app with a feature called "instant order." A driver can take the order by one single touch on the mobile phone. "We also constantly remind the drivers through the broadcast to pull over before making calls," Zhuo added.
Another driver, Zhang Xingmin, 45, complained that for older taxi drivers, the smart phones may prove too complicated to use, alienating them from this new tool.
Zhuo thinks it always takes time for new technologies to catch on, but asserted that eventually they will. Young customers were very skeptical at first, too, she points out, but it's a process of gradual improvements, for both the taxi passengers and the drivers.
Training lessons and service hot lines are available for the drivers, said Zhuo. As a matter of fact, among the drivers who use the app, the average age is 45, and the oldest one is 59.
"You can see drivers in their 50s, using smart phones, Bluetooth earphones and portable chargers - it's very cool," Zhuo said.
Almost every driver has had a passenger bail on their reservation after the deal was made, so the long-term planning for Didi Dache includes building a system for cumulative credits, said Zhuo. For example, a five-star driver with many successful orders in their past and a passenger with favored assessments from the drivers will have an advantage over others.
Many foreigners are using those apps, according to Zhuo. Didi Dache has no English version yet, but a foreign language version might be developed in the future. For now, the improvement hitting the app next will be monitoring traffic in real-time and taking that into consideration. Zhuo thinks that someday hailing a cab will happen with a phone, not a wave.