Sunday, March 03, 2013

A Couple of Reflections on Car Sharing

I'm thinking about this because I was recently made aware of a promotion from a new car-share company.  I have a car, but I was curious about them because their model is that their cars are parked all over a designated area, in this case a good chunk of Seattle, and one simply gets in a car, drives it somewhere, and then leaves it there.  It's really a little more complicated - it's possible to reserve cars and they have to be left inside the designated area.  But it seems like it should be very easy.  The promotion was that it was free to sign up, while normally there's an application fee, and I get 30 minutes of free driving - they charge primarily by time, with a mileage charge that can kick in if someone drives a lot of miles.  Like, 180 - seems pretty unlikely.

The last encounter with car sharing in a post-rental model that I had was with a company that had a much more complicated system.  They had a lot of different cars at a lot of different rates.  The cars had to be reserved, and they had to be reserved for a certain block of time.  So I might reserve one for two hours.  There were penalties for late return.  The cars had to be picked up from and returned to their designated parking spaces.  I found it very stressful.  Things took longer than I expected and I had to return the car before completing everything, and I felt like I spent a lot of my reservation just dealing with the location of the share car, not actually doing my errands.

One of the things I like about renting a car is that while it certainly has all of those rules, I have it for the whole day.  I don't need to worry about things taking a little longer than I thought, I don't need to pad my time estimates, and if I want to take care of a couple of other things that are easier with a car but not the reason I rented it, I can do that.  Possibly in response to car sharing, a lot of rental companies have also expanded their locations, meaning that if I have to go and pick up a car anyway, chances are not bad that there's a rental near me.  At least one rental company allows people to set up an accelerated renting process, so that a lot of the rigmarole associated with renting a car is streamlined out.  They've decided to keep competing with the car sharing companies, meaning that the car sharing companies offer much less that's different or easier than they did when they first started.

The thing that attracts me about the new sharing approach is that they really are all over my city, much more so than the previous type, and while I still have to get to the car upfront, I don't need to budget time in my rental to return the car once I'm finished.  I can just park and walk away.  Also, I don't have a set end time on my use of the car.  If things take longer, fine.  Finally, they can be driven one way.  Most models require that cars be returned to where I pick them up, at least to avoid an upcharge.  But there are a lot of trips I might do for which I only want the car in one direction.  I might be picking up or dropping off my own car from the shop.  I might be doing a series of errands by foot and picking up something heavy at the end, or taking something awkward in one direction but not the other on a commute I usually do by foot; this could extend to buses if I used them.  The airport isn't in the area for the new sharing service yet, but that seems like an excellent application to me - getting to and from the airport on public transit sucks, but my car is just costing me extra money every day if it's in a lot next to the airport.  In other words, I have the ability to use one of these share cars the way I'd use a taxi, except that I drive it myself.

The last thing that appeals to me about the car sharing concept is that it seems like one of the places for self-driving cars to start to be commercialized.  Car share companies have the ability to offer a better service if their cars can drive themselves, no driver base to alienate, and they spend more on fleets of cars every year, so may have the ability to have self-driving modules installed before they become common on personal cars. And if there's anything I'm looking for from driving a car in the city, it's not having to drive it.

I'm going to have to try the new car sharing idea when I get my membership card.  I'm very curious - will it turn out to be as good as I think?  Probably not.  I can also imagine finding it doesn't work very well for me if, for example, the density of the cars is low enough to make walking to get one very annoying or there are never enough free ones at the time that I want one.