Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Carsharing isn't what it used to be

Ten years ago the big debate in the carsharing world was Stations Cars vs. Carsharing. They were seen as two dimensions on a continuum - Stations Cars serving the work end of the commute with "last mile" connection from a transit station to work and Carsharing providing the neighborhood car that people used when they were at home.

Since then Station Cars have been supplanted by a variety of offerings from carsharing companies that blur the distinctions between these two end points. Flexcar and others places minivans at transit stations which are shared by other members at the company and working nearby during the workday, and shared by other members using transit to get to the station or living nearby on evenings and weekends. This ability to derive revenue from multiple sources enables the rates for each individual user to be lower.

While European carshares typically have a rental car partnership, US carshares have opted to increase utilization on their vehicles by creating daily rates. Although these rates may appear somewhat higher than rental car companies, this is offset by the included gas and insurance, no wasted time filling out paperwork, the neighborhood location of the vehicle and the option to rent for less than a full day.

Business customers, once the stepchild of neighborhood carsharing are now a major focus for carsharing companies - providing good usage during weekdays and enabling the companies to have some "extra" vehicles available for peak weekend trips. The Swiss report that for their markets, business memberships at about 20% of total provides a good balance of availability for everyone while maximizing utilization of the vehicles.

In addition, carsharing companies are serving a variety of non-traditional customers as well. Zipcar has developed a college/university campus service model that is being widely adopted, most recently at the University of Minnesota (on the home turf of HourCar in Minneapolis). Philly Carshare and City Carshare were the first to demonstrate the potential of offsetting government fleets with carsharing vehicles.

And the vehicles have changed as well. From a "standard sedan" that dominated the fleet, carsharing companies are offering a variety of vehicles from tiny to large. Zipcar offers customers a choice of 20 different models in its major markets - from Toyota Matrix to Volvo, BMW and Mini. In addition to its standard Honda Civic (60% are hybrids), they offer Honda Element SUVs, Honda Odyssey minivan, pickup trucks and even Mazda Miata convertibles. Members may not own as many cars but that doesn't mean they don't have preferences about what they drive!

What's ahead? On one end of the income spectrum I expect more high end cars to join the fleets of carsharing companies, as they continue to expand fleets in revitalized downtown cores. On the other end of the spectrum, low income customers are another new opportunity. Both City Carshare and Flexcar already have subsidized programs to provide vehicle access for participants of "welfare to work" jobs programs. To roll these services out to a larger community, carsharing companies will need to develop payment options for those living closer to the margin and improved vehicle security for cars in higher crime areas. Philly Carshare already has a requirement that the member must have enough money in their account to pay for the trip when the reservation is made. And Zipcar reduces the risk of members' racking up huge unpaid bills by charging for usage more often than once a month.

Two other customer groups that are waiting to be served are: seniors and college students. The retirement market is huge and growing but so far no carsharing companies offer Buicks! (joke). The 18-21 year old college market is another huge audience waiting for the first carsharing company that can figure out how to provide insurance on a large scale.

Functional changes which I expect to see some day include on demand cars that don't require a reservation ("instant reservation"), which you keep (and pay for) as long as you want ("open-ended"). Implementing these options will require sophisticated fleet management and pricing. And someday there will be a fully integrated bus pass-carsharing membership with common access/payment card.

We've come a long way from the first green Beetles!