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Security

Can new tech boost safety in Uber cars, and in taxis, too?

After a slew of alleged assaults by drivers for taxi companies and ride-hailing services, firms like AsterRide and Shuddle are looking to increase passenger safety.

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AsterRide is a smartphone app that pairs passengers with taxis or black-car services. AsterRide

When you tap open the AsterRide app to hail a taxi, you'll see something a bit different from other ride-hailing apps: a feature called InstaAlert. It's designed to help passengers notify friends or family that they're in a taxi and to send an update once the rider arrives at a destination in one piece.

AsterRide is marketing itself as a safe alternative in the ride-hailing industry. Its timing is auspicious -- Uber, taxis and other ride-for-hire rivals have made headlines around the world over some of their drivers allegedly engaging in sexual assaults, kidnappings and beatings.

Ride-hailing apps -- like Uber, Lyft and Flywheel -- let passengers use a smartphone to hail a taxi, black-car service or a personal driver using their own car. The companies behind these apps are aiming to convince passengers that the rides they hail are safe. But it's a hard sell. Though these companies say safety is their top priority, nearly every week there's a new story detailing a driver's alleged offense against a passenger.

AsterRide and a few others, including Shuddle, are part of a growing reaction to assuage customers' concerns. They're beefing up safety features in their apps, such as adding panic buttons and passenger tracking, and they're also looking to create more-secure services with heightened driver background checks and all-female driver fleets. It's unclear how many of these features will become industry standards, but they do represent a turning point in intensified attention to safety.

"Rider safety is becoming a paramount concern with users of app-based ride-sharing services," said Tejas Mehta, an analyst with Parks Associates, a market research firm that specializes in emerging consumer technology products. "This has created an opening for competitors such as AsterRide and Flywheel."

AsterRide launched in November 2013 by offering a similar service to its competitors: passengers tap on a smartphone app that can hail a taxi or black-car service to take them to their location. But unlike its competitors, AsterRide aims to give customers peace of mind by promising to alert friends and family that they're on their way.

So far, its service is only in Phoenix, Ariz., but it will be expanding to cities in Florida, Illinois, California and other locations in a few months, the company says. Flywheel has a similar service in several California cities and in Seattle, Wash. Both AsterRide and Flywheel work only with existing taxi and black-car companies.

AsterRide is small potatoes compared with Uber, which is flush with nearly $5 billion in funding and operates its service in more than 250 cities around the world. So AsterRide is aiming to get a competitive edge by focusing on safety.

Seth Rudin, AsterRide's CEO, said he chose to focus on safety after he spoke to several women traveling with their children. "Every time they got in a cab they didn't feel comfortable," he said. He'd heard that some people were trying to protect themselves by snapping a photo of the taxi driver's license and sending it to friends. Rudin modeled his InstaAlert feature on this idea.

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AsterRide's InstaAlert feature lets passengers notify friends or family when they're taking a taxi. AsterRide

Passengers can set up InstaAlert to notify certain people whenever they request a ride, and then these people will get texts or emails when the ride starts and ends. The app also shows pickup and drop-off locations, along with real-time GPS tracking of the ride, driver name, car type, license plate and taxi registration ID numbers.

At the end of the ride, the app asks the passenger to verify that they arrived safely at their destination. If the passenger says no or doesn't respond, AsterRide will contact the passenger's family members or friends and urge them to call for help.

Uber has been in the spotlight over the past few months for a string of incidents allegedly perpetrated by its drivers. Various media outlets have reported alleged rape, sexual harassment and groping in Washington D.C., Chicago and Orlando, Fla. In December, an Uber driver in India was accused of beating and raping a passenger, prompting officials to ban the service in the country's capital of New Delhi.

A few Uber drivers have also allegedly brandished knives and guns, and punched, choked and beaten passengers, according to several media reports.

Uber said it is trying to fix the problem. In December, the company said it was exploring new methods to screen drivers, including biometrics, voice verification and possibly even polygraph exams. The company also said it was looking into ways to let passengers "communicate with us and their loved ones in the event of an emergency."

Already, Uber can track every ride with GPS, and its app shows passengers the driver's photo, license plate number and vehicle type. Riders can also share their estimated time of arrival with friends and family, including a map of their trip in progress.

On Tuesday, Uber announced a new program in Chicago under which it will have "security specialists," which include off-duty police officers, perform real-time audits of Uber rides.

"Putting safety first for each of the 1 million trips we are doing every day means setting strict safety standards, then working hard to improve them every day," Uber's head of global safety, Phillip Cardenas, said. "Uber is committed to developing new technology tools that improve safety; strengthen and increase the number of cities and countries where background checks are conducted; and improve communication with local officials and law enforcement."

Uber and AsterRide aren't the only ride-hailing companies that say they're boosting safety -- other startups are also thinking of innovative ways to make rides more secure.

After the alleged rape incident in India, one of the country's largest taxi companies, Meru Cabs, launched a female-only ride service called Meru Eve, according to the Wall Street Journal. The taxis, which are driven by women and pick up female passengers, come equipped with pepper spray and panic buttons that alert the company if there's a problem.

Another company that has an all-female driver fleet is a San Francisco, Calif.-based ride-hailing app called Shuddle, which focuses on passengers who can't normally drive themselves around, like children and seniors. To ensure the safety of its customers, the company says, it has stringent driver background screenings and ride monitoring systems.

Shuddle requires that every driver have child care or caregiver experience and a clean background check that includes no misdemeanors. For every ride, the passenger and driver are given passwords so they can verify each other. Also, all rides are live-monitored by Shuddle and there's a call desk that people can reach out to at any time. Company CEO Nick Allen said this amount of scrutiny makes it safer not only for passengers but for drivers too.

"There's no magic bullet," Allen said. "You have to do a number of things well."