China’s Didi reportedly lost a staggering $1.6 billion in 2018

China’s largest car-hailing company is facing relentless pressure from all fronts. Beijing-based Didi Chuxing reportedly lost a staggering 10.9 billion yuan ($1.6 billion) in 2018, according to financial data that Chinese news site 36Kr obtained.

For some context, Uber posted a net loss of $939 million on a pro forma basis and an EBITA loss at $527 million during Q3 2018.

Didi has not responded to TechCrunch’s inquiry about its losses, but an internal letter leaked in September offers a glimpse at the depth of Didi’s troubles. According to the memo from founder and chief executive Cheng Wei, Didi had been operating in the red for six consecutive years and lost 4 billion yuan in the first half of 2018. At this moment, the transportation giant’s predicament appears to be multipronged.

Public backlash

The ride-booking app capped off 2018 with a bleak outlook after two female passengers were killed by their Didi drivers in separate instances, drawing ire of the government and triggered a nationwide backlash underpinned by a #DeleteDidi campaign that’s reminiscent of the #DeleteUber movement.

Didi responded with a fold of security measures, including stricter identity checks on drivers and a major reorganization to place customer safety ahead of growth. Hitch, the carpooling service that was complicit in both accidents and was popular among riders for its relatively cheap fares, is suspended indefinitely, a move that could exclude the more price-sensitive consumers.

Cash-burning model

Didi’s struggles had preceded the passenger murders. Cheng admitted in his memo that the company’s expansion was getting out of hand. “The expansion frenzy planted seeds of trouble and our internal system couldn’t keep up with our expansion.”

During the first six months of 2018, Didi shelled out about $1.7 billion in subsidies for drivers and steep discounts for passengers as competition intensified, Bloomberg reported citing sources. In the entire year, Didi burnt through a total of 11.3 billion yuan ($1.67 billion) on driver subsidies according to the 36Kr report.

Subsidies have played a key role in the rise of Didi and many other aspiring consumer-facing services in China. Investors dole out big bucks for early movers to gain market share rather than strive for profitability. That tactic has helped catapult tiny startups into billion-dollar businesses such as bike-rental service Mobike, but it has also led to the dramatic fall of some, Mobike’s peer Ofo being one alarming example.

Regulatory hurdles

Following Didi’s safety incidents, Chinese authorities hastened their pace to reinforce rules they had long laid out for the fledgeling industry, and some of the policies prove costly to uphold. For one, ride-booking drivers now need to obtain two licenses — one for the drivers themselves and the other for their vehicles to operate commercially.

The new requirement discourages part-time drivers as the costs of owning a commercial vehicle outpace the returns of taking up the gig work. Didi has tried to neutralize the constraint by offering test preps to drivers and teaming up with car rental businesses to equip drivers with the licensed vehicles. But these moves are set to incur new costs for Didi’s already money-burning business. The mobility startup was mulling a multi-billion-dollar initial public offering in 2018 that could value it upwards of $70 billion, Wall Street Journal reported last April.

New rivals

Another stumbling block for the firm is the swarm of new contenders eyeing a market long dominated by Didi after it swallowed up competitor Uber China. Neighborhood services marketplace Meituan, for instance, began to offer shared rides last year though it later put a hold on the capital-intensive new business to stay focused on its dining and hotel-booking units. On the other hand, traditional automakers, including a few that are state-owned such as BAIC, are charging full speed ahead by luring drivers with more favorable commission rates.

These newcomers have a long way to go before they could threaten Didi’s share, but Alibaba has a tool that can potentially help them grow. The ecommerce titan is not competing directly against Didi. Instead, its AutoNavi map service doubles as a ride-hailing platform that lets users book cars from a list of third-party operators. The model in effects levels the playing field for smaller players to challenge Didi, as they all compete on equal terms to court AutoNavi’s 1 billion daily active users.