Hitching a ride by extending a thumb by the roadside? That's so 20th century.
These days, young social-networking entrepreneurs are creating new forms of high-tech hitchhiking using iPhones, the Internet and car-sharing to help people who want to carpool find rides and give them.
The concept of carpooling isn't new, of course, but where other business models failed to galvanize the masses to reduce their collective carbon footprint in the 1990s, many hope newer companies will succeed.
Palo Alto-based Zimride, the brainchild of two 25-year-old entrepreneurs, is a website on which people seeking and offering rides can connect. Either through the Zimride.com site itself, or by linking to a Zimride-sponsored group on Facebook, would-be carpoolers can type their start and endpoints and find people going the same way.
College campuses are the most obvious venue for staging rides, according to John Zimmer, cofounder and chief operations officer of Zimride. So in addition to individual carpoolers, Zimride has created college-based networks on such campuses as Stanford, Dartmouth College and UCLA.
Currently, there are 1,500 members on the Stanford campus, he said.
In a new development, the company formed a ride-sharing partnership April 8 with Zipcar, a company that stations vehicles that people can rent on an hourly basis. Now Stanford students and faculty can book one of the 20 Zipcars on campus and share the cost with others who need a ride.
Zimmer got the idea for a ride-sharing network while a student at Cornell University 1 1/2 years ago. He started a ridesharing company called Zimbabwe and 3,000 students used the service, he said.
Through a friend, he discovered that Logan Green, a member of the transportation-district board in Santa Barbara, Calif., had started a similar venture called Zimride.
"I quickly learned that we had routes that were so popular that buses were overflowing and people were being turned away. ... Neither increasing the bus fare or the public funding (for more buses) were politically feasible, so our service was unable to grow in any meaningful way," Green said.
"I started to think of different models for transportation that would grow more organically; something with a positive feedback loop, where the more people used it, the stronger it would become," he said.
The two teamed up to form the current Zimride, with Zimmer taking a cross-country trip last July to meet up with Green. Zimmer carpooled across America, arranging for rides and picking up passengers along the way. Zipcar donated a car for the trial run, he said.
Twenty percent of undergraduates need rides, he said.
"Freshmen can't have a car on campus," he said, for example, of Stanford University. But students needing to go to San Francisco or Los Angeles can view routes for each potential ride, finding the best possible match for their trip, he said.
Riders and drivers post their likes and dislikes, such as the type of music they listen to on trips and whether they prefer high or low volume. They can also stipulate smoking or nonsmoking, conversation or peace-and-quiet and one's tolerance for body odor or fragrances. And if one wants to learn more about a person, many have links to Facebook pages, part of a partnership between Zimride and Facebook established in July 2008 with a $250,000 grant from Facebook, Zimmer said.
Corporations such as Facebook offer lucrative territory for Zimride, he said.
To make the Zimride succeed, the company is targeting large communities where there is an element of trust between people, Zimmer said. Most people might be leery about taking a ride from or picking up strangers, but everyone on the Stanford campus has a Stanford e-mail address, for example, he said.
Zimride also has an anonymous feedback section similar to eBay's, where users can rate rides, he said.
Stanford freshman Gaalan Dafa started using Zimride recently.
"I've used it to do things like get food at In'N'Out Burger (in Mountain View). I've found it to be pretty easy and convenient," he said.
"On Facebook, you can check out the person's profile, which is kind of reassuring. I've been using Zipcar, too, and that is really cool. ... My friend and I just rented a car through Zipcar, and through Facebook put it on Zimride. A couple of people responded -- and we were off," he said.
Travis Kiefer, a Stanford sophomore and major in urban studies, describes himself as a passionate social entrepreneur. Zimride appeals to him because of his own socially entrepreneurial work -- a business providing micro-capital to alleviate poverty called Gumball Capital.
He first used Zimride when he planned to drive to the airport. He immediately received two responses, he said. One was from a woman he knew whose ride to the airport had bailed out.
"She saved $60 on what she would have spent for a taxi. We had a fun trip catching up on what we had been up to since freshman year when we lived in the same dorm and I had become a firm believer in the value of Zimride. ... Owning a car at Stanford is expensive. A parking spot for the year can easily set you back $150. You haven't even started to pay for registration, insurance, gas, maintenance, etc.
"You can easily save $200 on transportation over the course of a year and still travel the same amount," he said.
By using Facebook, "you don't have to worry about sketchy people who you don't trust," he said.
More than that, he added, students want to help the environment and see carpooling as an easy way to reduce their carbon footprint.
As for the future of ridesharing, Zimmer predicted carpoolers will start using the iPhone to arrange their rides. A San Francisco company, Carticipate, is already experimenting with that technology.
But ridesharing depends on critical mass, according to Jim Morris, a computer scientist, dean of Carnegie Mellon Silicon Valley's campus and Zimride user. The number of carpoolers hasn't reached a viable mass yet to sustain rideshare organizations and that was the chief reason for their failure in the 1990s, he said. But that could change.
He is currently working with an Irish-based company called Avego Shared Transport that is working on a pilot program that would integrate the iPhone with ridesharing.
"With a cell phone, you can dial in or call 511 or another ridesharing group and pick up a ride almost immediately. The fears of kidnapping disappear because the information (about the person) is in a database," he said.
The service could function much like airplane connections, with ride searches and pickups in five minutes -- what he referred to as "high-tech hitchhiking."