Passengers aren’t buying a new Didi feature that trades privacy for safety.

Didi Chuxing is piloting mandatory audio recording as a safety feature during long rides on its Hitch service. Hitch is a carpooling service for private car owners and passengers going in the same direction.

Why it matters: Didi has been surrounded by controversy since the relaunch of its carpooling service Hitch in November. It is now struggling to reassure customers with a brand-new service with complex safety rules.

  • The company earlier last month backtracked on its plans to impose gender-specific operating hours on the renewed Hitch. They replaced them with a standardized time slot from 5 a.m to 8 p.m for both men and women.
  • The initial plan garnered accusations of gender bias. It was initially planned for the service to be available until 11 p.m. only for male passengers. Netizens decried this as setting a curfew on women.

Details: Didi expanded the relaunch of its carpooling service Hitch on Tuesday morning with the new safety feature in five Chinese major cities. The cities include Beijing, Wuhan, and Changsha.

  • Most Hitch trips have an optional audio recording feature for both users and drivers.
  • A ride longer than 30 kilometers (19 miles) total will automatically record audio from the drivers’ phone and can not be switched off, the company said in the user guide.
  • After the first day in trial operation in Beijing, a number of local passengers refused to grant authorization. They were wary of the potential for eavesdropping on their private conversations.
  • They added the measure helps to improve accountability but could not stop criminal activities per se, Chinese media reported citing some anonymous passengers.
  • Didi claims all the audio recordings will be encrypted, retrieved in strict accordance to a set of rules, and “automatically deleted” after seven days if no disputes between rider and driver are reported.
  • A Didi spokesperson told TechNode that customer agents never listen to recordings in real-time. Recordings are only accessible by Didi’s customer support team with the authorization from both customers and drivers, and by police with a proper legal mandate, the spokesperson added.

Context: Hitch was reportedly one of Didi’s only two products that had made a profit for a long time, alongside its high-end chauffeur-driven service.

  • The Chinese mobility firm suspended the carpooling service following the murders of two female passengers by Didi Hitch drivers late last year, and recorded a staggering RMB 10.9 billion (roughly $1.48 billion) loss annually, according to an internal file obtained by Chinese media.
  • Audio recordings were first used starting in September last year in Express and Premier rides as a required safety feature.
  • The company launched the carpooling feature Pinche in 2015. Pinche offer rides from local ride-hailing fleets driven by drivers with government permits. Hitch drivers are private citizens not employed as drivers.

Correction: includes a correction about only full-time drivers offering carpooling rides on Didi Pinche in an earlier version. Both full-time and part-time drivers are qualified in this case, as long as they were granted with the government permits for ride-hailing. 

Jill Shen

Jill Shen is Shanghai-based technology reporter. She covers Chinese mobility, autonomous vehicles, and electric cars. Connect with her via e-mail: jill.shen@technode.com or Twitter: @yushan_shen

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