"Dude, where's my ride?" New student-created app gives the answer

By: Meribah Knight
Ride sharing app helps student make connections

Tiffany Hsieh, 18, knows how it feels to be stuck after school, stranded without a ride.

As an underclassman at Johns Creek High School in Johns Creek, Georgia, she often hoofed it home without a ride.

“My parents own a restaurant,” Tiffany, now a senior, explains. “A lot of times they couldn’t come get me after robotics club, so I’d suck it up and walk the 30 minutes home.”

Identical twins Sneha and Preeti Iyer, 17, Tiffany’s classmates at JCHS, can relate. Their parents are software engineers working long hours and the Princeton-bound sisters (yes, both) are deep into extracurricular activities: Preeti is in student government and Sneha plays soccer. And they were constantly waiting for a ride home.

“I used to stay in the bleachers after practice and do my homework,” Sneha says.

The three girls rallied with their robotics club teammates Stephen Hahn, 18, and Jacob Abramow and Avery Paul, both 17, last fall to brainstorm ideas for this year’s app challenge, part of Verizon Innovation Learning. 

“We wanted to do something with STEM that could help students,” Avery says.

It was around then that Tiffany started thinking about the concept of ridesharing.

Wouldn’t it be great, Tiffany and her teammates reasoned, if there was a smartphone app that could connect students who need rides with other parents and students who had room in their cars to spare?

That’s the mission at the heart of Vroom, their new rideshare app for students, which recently won Best in Nation in this year’s app challenge.

The demand for a service like Vroom at JCHS was obvious. “We see parents in empty cars after school, waiting outside for their kids all the time,” says Jacob. Why not fill that car with more kids?

Most of the teens in the JCHS student body reside in a close-knit network of roughly six neighborhoods. On average, about a dozen or so extracurricular activities, from sports practices to club meetings, go on after school and let out around the same time. Yet few students carpool with other students outside of their respective teams and clubs.

Vroom will help students who go to the same school and live near each other — but don’t necessarily participate in the same activities — link up and head home together.

“It can be awkward to ask someone for a ride who you don’t really know,” Tiffany acknowledges. Marching up to an upperclassman you’ve barely ever spoken to — or a parent, for that matter — would feel weird or scary to most teens.

But on Vroom, a messaging feature will allow students and parents to connect over text, removing the potential awkwardness of a face-to-face interaction, and “bridging the gap,” Tiffany says.

Driving toward another kind of change

Tiffany knows a little something about gap bridging. She was the first girl to ever join the school’s robotics team three years ago. Since then, Preeti and Sneha followed suit. The boys on her team like to joke that there has been a “300 percent increase in women."

Vroom, designed with a clean, user-friendly interface, will link passengers and drivers with a few simple taps on a smartphone screen.

But unlike those other popular ridesharing services — think Uber and Lyft — Vroom will serve only students, who can sign up free of charge.

Student and parent drivers, Jacob adds, “will be approved” to ensure passengers’ safety. The school already conducts background checks and copies license information into a database for student parking passes. Sneha says they plan to implement the same process for parent drivers. “It will all be in the same database,” she says. Parents and students will also be able to share joint accounts so that parents can monitor their children’s usage.

The team hopes the app will help forge new friendships between students across grade levels, and across a range of extracurricular activities.

“It’s a way to meet new people,” Tiffany says. “There is a personal connection with someone when you’re in the car.” She ticks off a few examples: listening to music together, learning about new after school activities or seeing a part of the city or neighborhood that is different from yours.

Another benefit? Fewer idling cars in the parking lot will mean fewer emissions — and a happier environment.

“The fact that this is also a green, sustainable solution,” says Preeti, “is huge for us.”

Caution: Big success ahead

As one of the nine winners in this year’s Verizon Innovative App Challenge, the JCHS team received $20,000 for their school from the Verizon Foundation, and worked with an expert from MIT to learn coding and receive guidance to actually develop the app. In June, the team attended the 2016 Technology Student Association National Conference, where they presented their finished product.

In the months leading up to the conference the team pooled their talents to build out a version of the app. Each member tackled tasks, including marketing, coding, hardware and project management.

“The whole idea is based off a mutual incentive,” explains Preeti. “If your child can’t get a ride home sometimes, you’ll be more inclined to give rides when you can. When you join Vroom, you’re directly serving the school and the families in the school.”

Call it car pool karma.

If you have your own bright idea or personal story about how to use technology to change the world, the Verizon Innovative Learning app challenge is open for submissions. You can submit your idea, no coding required, and if named a Best in Nation winner by the judges, Verizon will help you turn it into an app.

Meribah Knight is a freelance journalist based in Nashville. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Crain's Chicago Business, O, The Oprah Magazine, Chicago Magazine and The Chicago Reader.