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The sector has been ordered to introduce new measures to ensure passengers are protected. Wang Keju reports.

In March last year, Huang Jieli, then general manager of the hitch service department of Didi Chuxing, China"s largest ride-hailing company, was invited to a wedding.

One of the company"s registered drivers in Guangzhou, in the southern province of Guangdong, was marrying a woman he had met when she was his passenger.

"Thanks for getting us hitched," the invitation said.

Video footage posted on v.qq.com shows Huang toasting the happy couple and saying: "I am so proud to serve such users. Didi is a platform where people can meet and communicate with strangers. If we trust each other, we have a lot of warmth inside. Maybe we can run into many unbelievable relationships."

Didi has long explored all kinds of ways of attracting new users, including the use of social networks. In 2015, it launched the hitch service, which paired riders with car owners who had similar starting locations and destinations, and wanted to depart at about the same time.

The company pushed the romantic possibilities of the service via suggestive ads that hinted at hookups through driving, along with profile photos, ratings and public tags of passengers, especially those of the opposite sex.

"This scenario has never existed before. Just like cafes and bars, private cars can also become semipublic, semiprivate social spaces. It"s a very futuristic and very sexy scenario," Huang told online portal Net-Ease in a 2015 interview.

Just a decade ago, the idea of getting into a stranger"s unmarked car was unheard of. Today, ride-sharing platforms are extremely popular. According to Didi, it provided 7.4 billion travel services to 450 million users in more than 400 cities in 2017.

Murders

Two months after the wedding in Guangzhou, Li Mingzhu, a 21-year-old flight attendant from Zhengzhou, Henan province, planned to travel to Jinan, Shandong province.

Li, who was heading to Jinan to attend a relative"s wedding, hailed a Didi hitch car to take her from a hotel near Zhengzhou Xinzheng International Airport to the railway station. However, soon after she got into the car, she sent a WeChat message to a colleague saying she had "bumped into a pervert".

Li never made it to the railway station. Her body was discovered on a muddy slope. She had been raped and then stabbed to death by the driver.

In August, a 21-year-old female passenger, who police identified only as Zhao, her surname, was raped and murdered by her hitch driver in Wenzhou, Zhejiang province.

According to Southern Weekly in Guangzhou, at least 53 women have been raped or sexually harassed by Didi drivers nationwide in the past four years. All the drivers were apprehended and prosecuted.

News of the murders and assaults prompted a national outcry, and people called for effective measures to improve passenger safety during rides with online car-hailing services.

The furore prompted several government departments, including the Ministry of Transport, the Office of the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission and the Ministry of Public Security, to implement joint in-house inspections of eight major players in the ride-hailing sector to identify safety loopholes and problems affecting public safety.

Pledges

In the wake of the outcry, Didi conceded it had lost its way. Four days after Zhao"s murder, CEO Cheng Wei and Liu Qing, the president, issued a statement pledging to review the company"s business model and service logic. Rather than focusing purely on size and profit, Didi would put passenger safety at the core of its growth-and-development program, the statement said.

"In the past few years we forged ahead wildly, riding on aggressive business strategies and the power of capital," it said, adding that in the light of the lost lives, "the whole company has started to question whether we have the right value system".

Huang Jieli was fired, and the government forced Didi to suspend its hitch service indefinitely.

The company took steps to better ensure passenger safety, such as making it easier for them to contact police en route and the introduction of audio and video recording functions during rides.

Though Didi was slow off the mark, the new safety measures have brought changes to its services that have been welcomed by passengers.

Shen Mo works for an internet company in Beijing. The 27-year-old often stays late at the office, so she is a frequent nighttime user of Didi. The expulsion of unauthorized vehicles or drivers from the company"s platform means she has experienced some minor inconvenience, such as drivers taking longer to respond to requests, but she feels much more secure.

"Safety must come first. It was the taking of two young lives that taught us that lesson. So, even though there may not be enough cars during peak times, or I have to spend more money because I can"t get a hitch car anymore, it"s totally fine," she said.

During the time the new measures were being implemented, she complained to Didi"s customer service line about a driver"s bad attitude. Instead of giving her a coupon worth 10 yuan ($1.50) as had happened before, the operator noted her description of the driver in detail, and called back to let her know how he had been dealt with.

"Other safety measures, such as audio recording, emergency contacts and the one-tap police assistance function button (on Didi"s phone app) have more or less won back my trust in Didi," Shen said.

Bleak outlook

While the new measures have improved the company"s image, they could spell a tough winter for some of its drivers.

Liu Guiliang, a 26-year-old full-time driver in Beijing, is considering changing jobs because the widespread changes are making it hard for him to earn a living.

He joined Didi less than six months ago because he thought the job would pay his bills and, as he had his own car, he could afford to be flexible about the hours he worked. However, the tighter management is making life difficult.

Liu usually begins work at 9 am and doesn"t return home until 11 pm, working about 12 hours, excluding meals and nap time. However, he only makes about 8,000 yuan a month, and as gasoline costs him about 3,000 yuan, not to mention other expenses, he is barely keeping his head above water.

Didi"s new measures require that express and premier car drivers who want to work between 11 pm and 5 am must show they have had a clean service record for more than six months and have undertaken more than 1,000 trips safely.

"There are fewer cars on the road at night, so I was hoping to get more orders, but the strict regulations have left me with no choice (but to work during the day) because I don"t meet the requirements," Liu said.

The suspension of the hitch service made his situation even worse.

"From the passengers" point of view, I can understand the suspension of the hitch service, but for us drivers, it"s a real nightmare," he said.

"Now, I"m unwilling to accept long-distance orders, especially driving to another city. Without the hitch service, I"m highly unlikely to get another passenger on my return journey. Rather than earning money, sometimes I lose money."

Performance indicator

Although the overhaul of the sector may have inconvenienced drivers and passengers to some extent, experts said the program is stepping up efforts to make safety the most important performance indicator.

"The real challenge lies in coming up with government oversight that pushes the platforms to use technology creatively to improve safety," said Guo Jifu, head of the Beijing Transport Development Research Center.

"It puts the onus on the platforms, which are far better equipped than anyone else to use data and machine learning to make things safer."

The rapid development of ride-hailing companies in recent years has provided a convenient travel option for the public and played a positive role in building the country"s urban green transportation system, according to Guo.

"Even though Didi made terrible mistakes, the public should treat it rationally, have more tolerance and encourage the process of developing new business," he said.

He added that it is necessary to give internet-based companies such as Didi room for trial and error to create a positive environment for innovation.

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