After a very positive experience last month, I'm now a big fan of car-sharing services. I tried out Relay Rides for the first time and was hugely impressed — I easily managed to find, reserve, locate and, upon arrival, unlock (via smartphone) a rental vehicle owned by an extremely tidy local smart car owner. The price? For the one hour I needed it to run errands, it cost me just $8. With services like this around, why would urban dwellers ever need to buy their own car and hassle with payments, insurance rates and parking?

In general, there has been a lot of interest in peer-to-peer services, as people realize that, instead of hitting up big, expensive companies for services, they can provide them to each other for less cost. Thus explains the birth of businesses like AirBnB; car-sharing sites like Relay Rides, Getaround, City CarShare and others; and now a new auto sub-category, a ride-sharing service courtesy of SideCar, which has just come off beta to service the residents of the San Francisco area.

Similar to car-sharing (or more like the personal-driver-on-demand service Uber), SideCar offers ride-seeking users an array of geo-located options. The big difference is that these are chauffeured rides provided by individuals in the area. There's also another twist: Payments are voluntary. Theoretically, that means you could fire up the app and get some free rides, though the app's suggested amount listed (based on average fees for the route) typically does succeed in prompting people to pay. Of the money generated, SideCar takes a 20 percent commission, and the rest belongs to the driver.

Sounds like a win-win proposition — the driver can earn some money on the side without completely entrusting his/her vehicle to a stranger, riders get transportation for less than the cost of a cab (and more reliably, at least in San Francisco), and the company profits from connecting the two. There's only one downside — am I alone in thinking that the idea of getting into a car with total strangers is kind of scary?

Any arrangements based on an honor system can be risky — just look at what happened to some AirBnB hosts whose places were completely trashed — and one that puts bodily harm at stake can seem extraordinarily dangerous. From a business standpoint, as intriguing and promising as the concept is, it seems pretty fragile. Just one case of wrongdoing by a single sketchy passenger/driver would cast a pall over the whole shebang.

Then again, maybe I'm just being paranoid. After all, when people call cabs or limos, aren't they actually sitting in a vehicle with a total stranger? And for its part, SideCar does its absolute best to screen drivers, and it also has a user-rating system for drivers and passengers:

We have multiple layers of safety. You have to have a valid credit card. As a driver we put you through multiple screens — background check for past criminal activity, license verification, insurance verification. We do interviews with drivers, and we train the drivers.

Both [the driver and passenger] can rate each other. We've also got a rating system and investigate bad ratings. We've kicked out several drivers and at least a few passengers. And there's the ETA mechanism, so when you're hanging out with your girlfriend or sister and she orders a SideCar, she can send you a link that shows you where the car is as it makes its journey. We have to do what we can to build a safe environment knowing that bad things do happen.

I want to build a service that I could put my sister into, my girlfriend into, my kids into and not have to worry about it.

Available via iOS and Android apps, SideCar only covers San Francisco for now — and that makes sense, considering that individuals can only legally rent out their personal cars in two states (Oregon and California). But you can bet a lot of folks are watching this closely. If it succeeds, it could put pressure on other state legislatures to allow it. That could open a floodgate of widescale ride-sharing that could affect the auto industry, reduce traffic, lower carbon emissions and provide much-needed transportation to areas unsupported by a decent transit system or taxi network. All SideCar needs to do is convince people that it's safe.

For more, check out the video, courtesy of TechCrunch (below).

What do you think of this concept? Is ride-sharing a great idea, or a dangerous move for drivers and passengers alike? If it were available in your area, would you give it a go? Tell us what you think in the comments below.

[via TechCrunch]