For as little as half a Singapore dollar, or about USD 0.40, drivers in Singapore can rent a car for one hour. Assuming you have a valid driver’s license and you’re willing to get behind the wheel, that works out far better than flagging down a taxi—fares start at SGD 3.20 and tick up.
This car-sharing arrangement is offered by Tribecar, a startup founded in 2016 in the city-state. As the pandemic has left many citizens wary of public transportation and even ride-hailing services, Tribecar wants to take advantage of the new normal, offering drivers the possibility of paying as you go, without any subscription fees, Adrian Lee, Tribecar co-founder, told KrASIA. Users only need to put down a one-time refundable deposit of SGD 100 (USD 75) through the app to start using the vehicle rental services.
Tribecar is the only car-sharing firm in the city-state that provides services for leisure drivers as well as professional drivers working for platforms like Uber, GrabCar, and Ninja Van. Users can access the company’s app or website to book a car for short-term rentals. After reserving the vehicle for pickup at a preferred location and specific time, drivers can unlock the vehicle using their phone, and return it to the same parking lot after the trip is finished.
As an asset-light company, Tribecar does not own any vehicles, but uses cars from small and medium-sized (SMEs) car rental companies for its car-sharing services. The company relies on partnerships and on its in-house developed fleet management software to keep track of the vehicle pool. Tribecar also commercializes its fleet management software for SMEs, allowing them to manage operations more efficiently, Lee said.
While 70% of the firm’s earnings come from its car-sharing business, the rest is from the licensing of its software. Lee, however, did not disclose the number of rental firms using Tribecar’s fleet management suite.
Digitalizing car rental firms
“Tribecar has created an Asia market-focused combined fleet management and car-sharing platform that works for both drivers and our fleet partners,” Lee said about the company’s fleet management software.
To make things work, Tribecar equips cars with telematics equipment, also known as a black box, which allows the firm to monitor and track an array of data including GPS location, vehicle speed, and driving behavior. The black box, installed in every vehicle, is connected to a central server, providing insightful data to operators about the vehicle pool, Lee explained.
He emphasized that the system is “very scalable” and can be deployed in other countries where Tribecar is expanding operations, such as Thailand and Malaysia. The system can also be installed in older vehicles that “may not have the latest digital connectivity needed for advanced diagnostics.”
“In Singapore, vehicles can live ten to 30 years. Making sure the fleet management technology works with different types of vehicles here is important, and so does tapping the changing demand from the logistics sector. That’s why we spend a lot of money on technology and people,” he added.
The firm recently partnered with Carro, the largest regional car marketplace, as well as insurance firm NTUC Income to provide usage-based insurance (UBI) coverage for Tribecar’s fleet of rental cars. The policies are no longer based on fixed costs, but are instead generated based on data obtained from each vehicle’s black box, such as mileage and location.
Digitalizing vehicle rental firms is just one step toward the firm’s vision—a future where vehicle rental is accessible, affordable, and safer, leading citizens to choose shared transportation solutions instead of private ownership.
Turning the ship around during a pandemic
COVID-19 has laid out some roadblocks for the startup and the rest of the new mobility sector, Lee said. Like many of its neighboring countries in the region, Singapore introduced a partial lockdown in April 2020 to limit transmission of the coronavirus. Unsurprisingly, most car-sharing firms experienced huge losses during this period.
BlueSG, one of the biggest firms in the vertical, saw its revenues drop 50% during the circuit breaker. Car Club, the city-state’s oldest operator, also saw revenues falling by over 60% during the same period, according to a report by local media outlet Today.
Even Smove, once a major player, went into liquidation, becoming the first leading car-sharing player in Singapore to go bust in recent years.
With a 30% drop in revenue, Tribecar survived the pandemic with a shot in the locker. “Ever since COVID-19 happened, we have seen a shrinking pool of private-hire car drivers, but more leisure drivers for chores and so on. Individuals prefer private travel bubbles. Even for the people who used to rely on public transport, they prefer to rent a car,” said Lee.
After the circuit breaker was lifted on June 1, constraints and avoidance of public transportation gave a boost to car-sharing startups. Tribecar saw its revenue rise by 40% from June.
“During phase two of the open-up, people started to use cars more, we had about 20% to 30% uptick in usage. The business is healthy. The community continues to use our service,” Lee explained.
The firm wants to become Singapore’s main player in the car-sharing sector. “Even with new players coming in, we, including our competitors, collectively take up only 3% of the market. So, that is a lot of growing space for us within Singapore itself, and we will continue to focus on the local market,” said the co-founder.
When asked about plans to raise funds, Lee said the firm uses its profits to fund back the business. “Tribecar is not a VC-funded business, we raised our seed fund and Series A from our customers. As the customers continue to use our services, I want to work harder for them, so we can raise a Series B round from our customers in the future,” he said.
The company has already expanded to Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand. Lee remains sanguine about the firm’s outlook. “As long as we’re moving forward, and customers and the team are happy, we will continue to fight the good fight,” he said.
This article is part of KrASIA’s “Startup Stories” series, where the writers of KrASIA speak with founders of tech companies in South and Southeast Asia.