Car Sharing is an Idea Whose Time has Come, and it's Getting Personal

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Oct 25, 2010

City CarShare in San Francisco is launching a personal project. (City CarShare photo)
City CarShare in San Francisco is launching a personal project. (City CarShare photo)

Car sharing is an idea whose time has arrived--big time. Begun as an idealistic, nonprofit experiment in Europe, it has now become a fast-growing business all over the world. People are discovering that enjoying the benefits of the automobile doesn't necessarily mean owning one. In fact, it may be better for both your soul and your wallet if you don't. And the next step--sharing your own car--is just getting off the ground in California.

Car sharing is proving both resilient and adaptable. Let's couple that with the fact that young people don't seem to be all that into car ownership anymore. Motorists aged 21 to 30 account for only 14 percent of the miles driven today, down from 21 percent in 1995. According to Yahoo, Generation Yers "are likely to see autos as a source of pollution, not as a sex or status symbol." They have closer relationships with their cell phones, so why not share a car instead of owning one?

There are green reasons for giving up your car, no matter what age you are. According to Zipcar, the biggest player in the U.S., every shared car takes 15 to 20 personally owned vehicles off the road. Zipcar has a 7,000-car fleet, so you do the math (never mind, it's 105,000 to 140,000). The company says car sharing leads to a lot less driving--90 percent of its members drove 5,500 or less miles per year, which translates to 219 gallons saved per person (32 million gallons total).

And people get this stuff, particularly in a bad economy. According to Gas 2.0, car sharing grew 119 percent between 2007 and 2009. By 2016, there could be 5.5 million shares in Europe, and 4.4 million in North America.

Robin Chase, cofounder of Zipcar, would like to see open car architecture--and apps! (Jim Motavalli photo)
Robin Chase, cofounder of Zipcar, would like to see open car architecture--and apps! (Jim Motavalli photo)

I ran into one of Zipcar's founders, Robin Chase, at the GridWeek conference in Washington this week, and she said that part of the company's appeal, from the beginning, was to launch with "cool" cars--Minis, Priuses, BMWs, Beetles. "No Ford Tauruses like all the rental car agencies," she said.

Chase imagines car sharing as just the beginning. She compares cars to cell phones, and thinks they should have open architecture so people can start writing apps for them. That's interesting.

It's the bottom line that matters, though. In part because members who abandon auto ownership can save $500 a month, Zipcar predicts that 10 percent of the American population will adopt car sharing as their primary means of transportation. That won't happen for a while but in the meantime car sharing services are growing rapidly.

Daimler launched its Car2Go sharing service with Smart cars in one American city, Austin, Texas, last May, and it already has 10,000 members. The program operating in the relatively small German city of Ulm since 2008 has 20,000 members (15 percent of the residents with driver's licenses), and the company announced this week it is expanding to Hamburg, which has more than a million people.

According to Eva Wiese, a Daimler spokeswoman in Germany, the Hamburg program is likely to launch with more members than Ulm and Austin combined. There are also some interesting upgrades: The Smart cars in Hamburg will be "micro-hybrids," meaning that they'll have the technology that shuts hybrid cars down at stoplights. Micro-hybrids are sweeping Europe, and the French conglomerate PSA (which includes Peugeot and Citroen) just announced that it intends to build more than a million of them. The start-stop technology doesn't cost all that much, $300 to $500 per car, and it can increase fuel economy 15 percent.

Car2Go is putting Smart "micro-hybrids" on the road in Europe and the U.S. (Flickr photo/Angry Stan)
Car2Go is putting Smart "micro-hybrids" on the road in Europe and the U.S. (Flickr photo/Angry Stan)

Wiese told me that the North American program will also expand into at least one other city, possibly in Canada. From Austin, spokesman Paul DeLong told me that sign-ups have grown rapidly, in part, because Car2Go members can use their cars for one-way trips, dropping them off anywhere in downtown Austin. Most trips are short, meaning that people are using their share cars like light rail trains or taxis. And that's a good thing.

In both Ulm and a second city of Aachen, Daimler is testing Car2Gether, a related form of web-based ride sharing. With a free membership, people can solicit rides or offer them online.

Daimler is also creating a special edition Smart that's specifically for car sharing, with a solar panel that will cool the interior and supply power to the new telematics unit and redesigned user interface. Members will get into their Car2Go Smart (found through an iPhone app, a web page or an 800 number), enter a PIN number, and have the car's immobilizer automatically turned off. There will be a special cubby for the on-board key, and special slots for the smart cards used to gain access to parking lots and gas stations. Car sharing definitely appeals to techies.

There's more. The traditional rental companies are also getting heavily into car sharing. Hertz launched Hertz Connect at the end of 2008 with service in New York, London and Paris, and it also expanded quickly. Like Zipcar, Hertz Connect offers a range of cars, including the Mini Cooper and the Toyota Prius (also the occasional pickup truck). It's also very connected, with cellphone connectivity and web reservations. The service, which had 13,000 members worldwide the last time I looked, has spread to 35 college campuses, Madrid and Berlin. It has partnered with municipalities, including New York's neighbor, Hoboken, New Jersey, to create car-sharing programs that benefit both the communities involved and the company's bottom line. I took a ride in a Prius with the Hoboken city official who runs the program which stashes the cars in convenient locations around town.

As soon as they're available, Hertz Connect will be adding the Nissan Leaf battery car. Spokeswoman Paula Rivera told me the first cars could be in the fleet by the end of the year. "EVs are appealing as part of car sharing," she said. Enterprise Rent-a-Car will also add the Leaf to its in regular rental fleets in Seattle, Phoenix, Los Angeles, San Diego and Nashville, among others.

The next big trend in car sharing is letting it get personal. California has just enacted Assembly Bill 1871, an amendment to the insurance laws that ensure people won't get penalized for sharing their own cars. Yep, you can put the family car out on the street, shilling for a buck. After all, owning a car is expensive, and the darned things sit more than 90 percent of the time--why not have them work for a living? Join your friends and make it a collective.

A popular San Francisco service, City CarShare (also with 13,000 members), has teamed with Spride Share for a pilot program, the first test of the new law. The program reportedly has all the bases covered, but I still have questions about what happens when deferred maintenance leads to an accident. But it's a great idea, and the bugs can be worked out.

I predict a great, green future for car sharing. Long may people share.

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