An Uber-esque app that serves New Delhi's population of more than 16.5 million with on-demand shuttle buses was struggling to authenticate its passengers, so it turned to a unique 'date over sound' company for help.

Shuttl launched in New Delhi in 2015, targeted at professionals who could not afford expensive on-demand taxis but still wanted to avoid the extremely crowded public transport networks, which were struggling to cope with a quickly growing population.

Image credit: Shuttl
Image credit: Shuttl

The app works like this: customers book a bus through an app on their phone and select a preferred boarding point and drop-off point across more than 100 routes. When the booking is confirmed, the passenger heads to their pick-up point for an estimated time and boards the bus, where they have a guaranteed seat.

In its first year the company got 500 buses running throughout Delhi averaging 15,000 trips a day. Shuttl claims it reached one million rides before its first birthday.

Because of this quick growth, Shuttl quickly found itself struggling with ways to authenticate its many passengers – and felt worried that failure to figure this out could lead to more congestion across Delhi, the very problem it was originally attempting to address.

"This year in January, ride volumes were going up and we were looking for a technical solution to authenticate users on our platform," Karan Aggarwal, AVP of innovation at Shuttl, tells Techworld. "Basically, if you have your device and you place a booking, we wanted to know the customers who placed the booking were indeed the person who was boarding."

"A lot of bookings were happening and we were unable to actually authenticate users," he explains. "It's a legal requirement in our country that you need to have the identity of the person who's boarding."

A manual approach wouldn't work, then. But in a country where the range of smart devices people own differs so widely, the company was having trouble finding a technology that would work across the board.

The company set about creating its own authentication platform in-house. Shuttl's developers tried QR codes – but when passengers boarded in the evening and visibility was low this proved impractical.

A Near Field Communication option seemed like a natural answer, but Shuttl quickly discovered that the majority of people using the service didn't have a device that was NFC-enabled.

Manual methods were deemed intrusive and unpleasant for the drivers and the customers.

"The need to talk to people, the need to check – it's not a very positive thing to do, to check people and their ID cards," Aggarwal says.

Then Shuttl discovered Chirp, a British company that specialises in sending data over sound. Chirp describes its technology as a 'sonic barcode', and that 'with Chirp technology, data and content can be encoded into a unique audio stream – any device with a speaker can transmit a chirp and most devices with a microphone can decode them'.

Because the data is emitted by sound, it could work across the majority of devices used on Shuttl's buses, with passengers simply activating Chirp through the Shuttl app when they boarded. Both customers and drivers liked how easy it was to use and Shuttl began to roll out the technology across every route and fleet.

"When IT proposed this idea people didn't buy into it – that it wouldn't work," says Aggarwal. "In India, change is not very easy. But we rolled it out as a test scenario, and surprisingly our customers didn't mind it at all. It was very easily adopted and it worked on 90 percent of the devices we tested it on."

"Once our initial testing was done, it took us time to implement it because we had to train our drivers, who are not educated in most of the cases," Aggarwal explains. "But it was taken up very well – the drivers were relieved that it had come because their workload was reduced, and so this was quite an important step in our timeline."

Aggarwal says the implementation was smooth. "Chirp is quite solid with its technology, they know what it is, they're sure about what's working and what's not working," he says. "We have been working together about six months – it's now live on all of our routes and everyone is using it."