Parents are busy and have to often juggle work and taking kids to different activities—soccer games, dance lessons, doctors’ appointments and to their friends’ houses for play dates. It’s not always easy to pay someone else to drive; nannies may be too expensive, college-age sitters may come and go, so whom are you going to call?
A new California company, Shuddle, is billing itself as the yuppie parents’ solution: a new Uber-like car service for kids on the go. The web site says “Shuddle ride is like having a teacher, nanny or other caregiver available whenever you need help getting your family where they need to go.”
But Shuddle is not like a nanny or teacher—the drivers are not hired and vetted directly by parents—nor are they constant caregivers or mentors in a child’s life like a teacher. They are drivers hired to ferry our kids around when parents aren’t available. And so—remember the old adage—don’t get into cars with strangers- Shuddle is attempting to turn that around.
In this column, I will look at this new model and examine some of the underlying legal and safety concerns that this new business model raises.
How Shuddle Operates
Shuddle, which operates in the San Francisco Bay Area, provides rides to school aged children (post booster-seat, claims the website), and promises parents peace of mind by vetting its network of drivers (at present all female) who have had previous child-care experience.
The company was launched in the fall of 2014 and is still gearing up. Unlike Uber and other ride sharing survives, it asks parents to become members of the service for $9 per month. Rides cost approximately 15% more than competitors Uber and Lyft (which do not offer child chauffeuring services). Shuddle is being fueled by a $2.6 million seed round funded by Accel Partners, Comcast Ventures, and others.
As a parent, you have to download Shuddle’s app, sign up as a member, and schedule a ride by noon on the day before your kid needs a ride. You can schedule a ride as early as two weeks in advance.
You can meet your kid’s driver at your home, and at least talk to the person who will be in charge of your child from Point A to Point B. But you can also have a Shuddle driver pick your kid up from a variety of locations where you aren’t, like her school, a sports field, or a ballet studio. You may never actually meet the person entrusted with driving your child. It is unclear whether you can establish a relationship with a particular driver and ask specifically for her. No worries, though. Shuddle reassures you that all drivers are like Mary Poppins on wheels— with teachers, nannies, and nurses among the professional encouraged to apply.
How will a child know it’s safe to get into a Shuddle car? After creating an account for the family a parent will specify pickup and drop-off locations. Shuddle then identifies a child’s driver by name, photo, and car. Once a ride is scheduled, parents receive the driver’s full name, a photo and short bio of her plus a description of her car. Children using Shuddle must carry a phone that can send and receive texts, .
Parents will also have to provide a secret password that the driver will communicate to the child when picking him/her up. To see where your darling child is en route, you can track his whereabouts using the Shuddle app’s GPS tracking feature. Parents can’t call the drivers directly, but they may call a Shuddle customer support representative during their child’s ride.
Safety: Sounds Good, But Do We Need to Know More?
It all sounds good—Shuddle does have a safety page on the web—but the actual information is quite brief and general. Shuddle cars, the drivers’ own cars, can’t be any older than 10 years, must have four doors and pass a strict 19-point inspection.
Shuddle does conduct criminal background and DMV checks on its drivers. It also has in-person interviews and trainings as well and requires some prior experience with children. The company will not hire people with misdemeanors. Two employer reference checks are also performed, along with a face-to-face interview. Once a driver is approved, Shuddle reports that it continues to monitor her driving and insurance records
The Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page on the web does include Rules of the Road for safety. Drivers are not allowed “to be under the influence of alcohol, controlled or illegal substances, a drug not medically authorized, or any other substances that may impair performance or pose a hazard to the safety and welfare of the individual and/or the public or be involved in the use, possession, manufacture, sale, purchase, transfer of illegal substance.” But it is unclear whether drivers are ever tested for use of illegal drugs.
It also unclear what the drivers know about CPR or first aid, or about allergies and epipens. School bus drivers are required, often to have first aid certification, so why not Shuddle drivers? A short bio about a driver going by the name of Catherine on the startup’s website touts her certification in both CPR and first aid, though it’s unclear whether either is required.
Shuddle will provide a feedback system, and drivers will be investigated and terminated if parents complain (although it is presently unclear what the complaint mechanism is and when a finding will automatically lead to discipline). Drivers will reportedly be supsended during an investigation.
The vetting of drivers sounds good, but Uber and other ride share companies also vet their drivers. Will criminal background checks properly reveal any problems, if a particular driver worked as a caregiver or teacher before and had troubles with that job? Background checks often elicit information about criminal behavior but not about bad child-minding skills.
And will it be enough to say someone was vetted? Can a driver bring her creepy or strange relative or friend along for the ride, and if so, what should a child do? Presumably the answer should be for a child to refuse to get into the car. And if a driver becomes strange while a ride is in process, the website is not clear on how a child is meant to complaint. Mom and Dad can react once a ride is over, but can a child say “I want to get out” or “take me back to dance class”?
From the driver’s perspective, it’s also unclear what might get you into hot water. Drivers are told to “Feel free to chat with Passengers; however, please do not engage in topics that may potentially elicit private information about Passengers or Members.” How can one avoid talking to a school kid about his family, hobbies, family pets, or siblings? Will a driver be subject to discipline for talking about these topics?
Shuddle’s Million Dollar Insurance: What Does It Cover?
Shuddle bills an additional safety blanket: it offers up to one million dollars in insurance.
The Safety page boasts that Shuddle is the only rideshare service insured to transport kids. It states that its coverage is dependent on regular, in-depth inspections of its safety procedures by the insurance agency. It further claims that’s in addition to its standard coverage of up to one million dollars for vehicles, drivers, and passengers.
On its FAQ page it also notes Shuddle carries the most comprehensive insurance available in the transportation industry: “We cover our drivers, their vehicles and passengers (with special inclusions for kids).”
But in its own user agreement, it notes that “Shuddle will provide limited liability insurance covering Members, Other Passengers and Account Passengers during Rides. “ What are the limits? It’s not clear what will be covered if things go wrong. If there is an auto accident, will the driver be responsible, or will Shuddle step in?
It claims on its site that it is not a transportation service, acting instead as an intermediary between drivers and passengers. It’s not surprising to a lawyer, but perhaps to a parent, that Shuddle makes no “representations about the suitability, reliability or accuracy of the driver’ provision or performance of rides . . . . The provision and quality of rides requested through the use of the services is entirely the responsibility of the applicable driver. Shuddle makes no warranty, and under no circumstance, accepts liability in connection with and/or arising from drivers’ provision of rides.” While Shuddle’s lawyers may deem this language necessary, the absence of warranty means the absence of any real legal guarantee—quite a departure from the website’s reassuring language and tone.
Furthermore in its Terms of Service (“ToS”) it notes that you (the parent) as a member voluntarily agree to release, waive, discharge, hold harmless, defend and indemnify Shuddle from and against any claim, disputes, demands, liabilities damages, losses, and costs and expenses . . . arising out of or in any way connected with arising out of or in any way connected with your, (or in the case of members your other passengers or your account passengers) (i) access to or use of the services . . . and (ii) ride contracts or your account passengers’ . . . receipt of rides including, without limitation for bodily injury, wrongful death, emotional distress or other damages or harm . . . .”
And there are other exclusions. After reading this clause it’s hard to picture under what circumstances Shuddle will accept responsibility.
In a separate paragraph, Shuddle notes that it limits liability. While this may be a clause that merely limits the ability of parents to sue for consequential damages (e.g., because the car was late, my daughter did not get to her college interview and lost her place at Stanford.) But the limitation may go beyond that . The terms of service state “IN NO EVENT WILL SHUDDLE’S TOTAL LIABILITY ARISING OUT OF OR IN CONNECTION WITH THESE TERMS OR FROM THE USE OF OR INABILITY TO USE THE SERVICES OR CONTENT EXCEED $1000.”
So it’s unclear—even if the insurance exists—for what harm a family could receive insurance payments and for what amount. The Terms of Service provide much more wording than the promise of insurance.
Alert Buttons: The AsterRide Model
Shuddle might consider enhancing its safety features, such as by creating a panic button—and a way for kids to easily alert the authorities.
AsterRide was launched in November 2014. It offers a similar service to its competitors: Passengers use a smartphone app to hail a taxi or car service. But unlike its competitors, AsterRide promises to alert friends and family that the passenger is on her way.
Passengers can set up “InstaAlert” to notify designted friends and family whenever they request a ride. These people will get texts or emails when a 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 make, license plate, and taxi registration numbers.
At the end of a ride, the app asks the passenger to verify that she arrived safely at her destination. If the passenger says no or doesn’t respond, AsterRide will contact the passenger’s family members or friends and ask them to call for help.
Shuddle will likely draw an affluent crowd, who will rely on the discretion of the company to not make whereabouts of kids now to many people. Thus means keeping passenger information under tight lid, ensuring that drivers don’t either blab about their information or sell sensitive data to the paparazzi or the highest bidder.
Shuddle does note that information may be disclosed for the company’s own protection and the protection of others. It notes that “We cooperate with government and law enforcement officials or private parties to enforce and comply with the law. We may disclose any information about you or Account Passenger to government or law enforcement officials or private parties as we, in our sole discretion, believe necessary or appropriate: (i) to respond to claims, legal process (including subpoenas); (ii) to protect our property, rights and safety and the property, rights and safety of a third party or the public in general; and (iii) to stop any activity that we consider illegal, unethical or legally actionable activity.” This sounds good, but it would be useful to know what private parties might be entitled to data absent legal subpoena.
Does this mean that children responding to a link on the app might divulge information to a third party site that does not have good privacy policies? Does Shuddle vet any of its third-party marketers or partners? Can it? Should it?
What’s in Store for Shuddle: Licensing?
Shuddle may very well become Mom and Dad’s best friend in that providing a mobile chauffeur service is just what every middle-class parent has dreamed of, but given the risks involved in ferrying minors about town—from drivers learning their routes and whereabouts to accidents, and possibly inappropriate behavior and god forbid grooming or sexual assault—parents have the right to ask more questions before jumping on board.
If Shuddle does become a major nationwide service provider, it may be that states decide to treat it as they do many other child care services: by licensing or regulating it, thus setting minimum standards for vetting of drivers, insurance, and protocols for when and how to report incidents to law enforcement.