Uber has explicitly said that its service isn’t made for kids who want to ride alone. In the company’s terms of service, it says “you must be at least 18 years of age” to have an Uber account. However, the massive success of Uber has prompted entrepreneurs—including one in the Boston area—to try to find a way to safely transport younger people with an Uber-style model.
Cambridge-based Zemcar, an app-based ridesharing service for kids ages eight and up, is expected to launch later this month, says the startup’s founder and CEO, Bilal Khan. The plan with Zemcar is to let parents hail on-demand rides for their children and also schedule rides.
Previously a longtime Verizon Wireless executive, Khan has two children himself—and says he is fully aware that entrusting the safety and well-being of your children with a stranger in their car is a huge leap for parents to make. Not surprisingly, drivers on the service will need to pass an extensive background check. But beyond doing a check for any criminal history a driver applicant may have, Khan said the company also will require two references and an in-person training to make sure applicants understand Zemcar’s safety and quality standards.
Any driver must have two years of childcare experience, whether that’s as a professional or parent.
Zemcar is also building in other features to help ensure safety:
- a feature that lets you choose drivers your friends trust;
- real-time video monitoring that can be used by parents and the company’s monitoring team;
- driver monitoring mechanisms to ensure the driver is following the established route;
- panic alerts and instant communication for emergencies;
- and a video permission system that lets parents verify the driver with schools for pickup.
“For the parent’s peace of mind, our philosophy is to give maximum ride control to parents,” Khan said.
Khan said he came up with the idea for Zemcar after experiencing his own logistical struggles in helping his kids get the rides from school and to after-school programs when they need it. Khan said even though his wife is a stay-at-home mother, there have been times when scheduling conflicts arise.
Here’s how it will work: When a parent needs to set up a ride for their child, they can hail a rider immediately or schedule a ride in advance. Instead of being randomly assigned a driver, like with Uber, the parent will be able to choose which driver they prefer, and drivers who have received a recommendation from a friend will be marked as such.
If the child is being picked up from school, daycare or after-school program, the parent will have to record a video, audio or text message that can only be used once to verify the driver to a teacher or other kind of supervisor before the child can go with the driver. Once the message is viewed by the supervisor, the message will be deleted from the app and the company’s system, so that rider permission messages can’t ever be duplicated.
Once the child is in the car, the parent is then able to watch the child using a live video feed from within the rider’s car. The parent can also request the company’s own monitoring team to watch the child. In addition, the monitoring team tracks the driver’s entire ride to make sure it stays on route. If it doesn’t, the team calls the driver to make sure everything is OK.
Last, if the child has a smartphone of their own, the parent can download a children’s version of the Zemcar app that provides instant messaging capabilities, along with a “panic alert” button, which is also available on the parent’s version of the app. If anyone hits the panic button, the monitoring team will be contacted immediately.
Because of the extra infrastructure, Khan said an average ride will cost about $4 more than Uber.
“In my opinion, there is a lot of opportunity in this space, and it’s an untapped market.”
Khan said he acknowledges that not all childcare professionals can be trusted, even if they are experienced. To reduce the risk, the company “will be interviewing each candidate with specific questions about their behavior in previous jobs and two references who can verify their behavior,” he said.
While providing transportation for children is the main focus for now, Khan said Zemcar will also be advertised for senior and others who need a ridesharing service with more layers of security.
Zemcar currently has around four employees at the Cambridge Innovation Center, and another 30 employees, mostly focused on engineering, at an offshore location, Khan said. The startup is bootstrapped so far, but it does plan to eventually fundraise.
While Zemcar is certainly not the only company looking to provide an “Uber for kids” service, it appears to be the only one that will be available in Boston, at least for now. Over on the West Coast, a company with a similar service called HopSkipDrive recently raised a $10.2 million Series A round, and another company called Shuddle has raised $9.6 million total, according to the Los Angeles Times, and both of them have found traction with families.
“That’s a good validation of this market,” Khan said. “In my opinion, there is a lot of opportunity in this space, and it’s an untapped market.”