Uber loves China and is proud to say so. The San Francisco ride-hailing company has pledged to open in 100 new Chinese cities in the next year, poured $1.2 billion into the country and promised investors it will be a bigger market for the company than the U.S.
Here's another grand gesture for that list: Uber picked Chengdu, China, to debut its newest service, a commuting feature. It's the first time Uber has launched a global product outside of the U.S.
Even among Chinese cities, where Uber is rapidly taking off, Chengdu is a worthy pick. It's now Uber's top city globally in terms of average daily completed rides, the company said. In June, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said Chengdu had 20,000 active drivers, while New York City had 26,000 and San Francisco had 22,000. (Chengdu has more than 4 million people, about half of New York City but far more than San Francisco's 800,000.) Five of Uber's top ten cities by average daily rides are in China, Uber said in August. But Uber also has a spotty past with the city: Chinese authorities investigated its offices in Chengdu and Guangzhou in April and May.
The new service, called UberCommute, will allow drivers to indicate the direction they want to travel and wait for a passenger headed the same way that they can split the cost of the ride with – something close to a casual carpool for longer-distance commuters. Didi Kuaidi, Uber's giant Chinese rival, offers a similar carpooling product, and U.S. rival Lyft has offered a "driver destination" product for almost a year.
UberCommute is different from Uber's carpooling service, UberPool, whose drivers can't pick where they want to go and instead drive two passengers who are headed the same way. UberCommute opens up the possibility of drivers carrying a passengers on a trip they would have made anyway, like in commuting to and from work.
Especially in gridlocked Chinese megacities, Uber (and Didi Kuaidi) play up the efficiencies that could be gained by packing people into cars' empty seats. "We've chosen China to pilot uberCOMMUTE … because of the tremendous appetite amongst Chinese drivers and riders for creative new ways to get from A to B, affordably and reliably," the company wrote in a blog post.