Friday, November 27, 2009

Next Big Thing, part 1: Car2Go in Austin

In what seems like an unlikely place to launch a new mobility service, Daimler AG chose Austin, Texas, as the site for initial foray into North America. I say unlikely because, as urban and green and uncharacteristic of Texas as Austin is, it's got a long way to go before it matches the land use patterns and car-lite development of other "classic" carsharing cities.

And launch they have: 200 vehicles all over the downtown area. (Full disclosure: through my association with Team Red mobility network, I consulted with car2Go during the early days of the Austin project.)

When I asked them about this, Daimler officials half jokingly replied that if they can make it work in Austin it can work anywhere. And they're probably right, too. Because Car2Go is really quite different from other carsharing services. It has taken me a long time to wrap my head around the mobility and transportation implications of the Car2Go service model.

What is the "next big thing" about Car2Go? Basically, this:

- On demand usage - no need to have to make a reservation and specify a return time
- One way trips - pay by the minute
- Floating parking - greater flexibility in cities with parking congestion

Car2Go Austin rates are 35¢ per minute - perfect for one-way trips - and are discounted for longer uses: $12.99 an hour or $65.99 for a full day. That means if your trip is longer than 37 minutes the hourly rate kicks in or trips longer 5 hour the daily rate kicks in. Vehicles are geo-fenced and cannot be taken more than 200 miles from Austin.

I'm assuming that the majority of trips are likely to be spontaneous but the system does allows members to reserve vehicles up to 24 hours or as little as 15 minutes in advance. They do not allow more than 5 reservations in a 24 hour period and they must be separated by at least 30 minutes. A vehicle cannot be rented for more than 30 days. Reservations can be cancelled as little as 15 minutes before the trip start without charge.

As with other carsharing companies, car2go maintenance staff will clean vehicles but unlike traditional carsharing, the staff will also refuel vehicles as needed. Fuel cards are provided for a member on a long trip to refuel the vehicle and, as with other carshares, member are not supposed to return a vehicle with less 1/4 tank. If they do refuel, 10 minutes deducted from the trip time.

As with Hertz Conect, car2go only provides state minimum liability insurance assuming that most users will have their own personal auto insurance coverage. This is something I have ranted against in past postings as it undercuts the attractiveness of using the service as an alternative to car ownership. Having said that, I think it illustrates the different concept that Daimler has in mind for car2go.

Take a moment (actually 4 minutes) and watch the way car2go describes itself:

Personal Public Transport

Where car2go seems to be headed is not as another more fully featured, more convenient carsharing service, which it certainly is (albeit with a highly specialized class of vehicles), but something different. This phrase - "personal public transport" (from the video above) perfectly describes what they have in mind. Car2go is not focusing on serving the car-less households of America - it's providing "public" transportation for everyone - a much bigger market. Regarding the Autolib project in Paris, many people have observed that the one-way trip option does compete with public transportation (more precisely "collective transport") but I'm now not sure whether it's a bad thing or not.

First Velib, then the Bixi people in Montreal have demonstrated a notion that an individual transportation mode (a bicycle) can be "public" as well - not only because it's government sponsored or sanctioned, but also because the mode helps meet other social and environmental goals. So why shouldn't it be worthy of public support? The fact that we're talking about cars rather than bicycles with car2go or Autolib changes the equation but perhaps not as much as I had earlier assumed. One argument might be context: if a location has limited transportation alternatives, would a fleet of Smart cars making a whole bunch of 1 way trips be any worse than 1/4 full buses or a bunch of taxicabs, as in New York City?

Austin and Ulm

The City of Austin is to be commended for staying with the project, even during time of budget problems, the city stayed with the project. The use of a car2go vehicle includes free parking at meters and city-owned garages. Car2go is paying a usage fee to the City of Austin in the form of free driving minutes for employees driving on City business.

Austin has partnered with Car2Go with an arrangement that allows free use by city workers on business in return for designating 40 reserved parking spaces around downtown and 85 spaces in municipal garages and parking lots. The rest will be (in the words of the Austin Statesman) "free-range Smart cars", as long as the trip ends within a "geo-fence" roughly bounded by 51st Street, MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1), Oltorf Street and Interstate 35. Of course, traditional carsharing round trips may extend outside that area.

There are some interesting differences and similarities between Ulm and Austin:

Ulm - 120,000 people living in 119 sq. km. = 1,023 people per square kilometer
Austin - 750,000 people living in 767 sq. km = 1,252 square kilometer

But Ulm has excellent transportation network and supportive land use patterns and Austin, with its good, by American standards (but arguably under-appreciated) public transport system including a new light rail line), is still an auto-oriented city, except for a few areas downtown and around the University of Texas.

So now that Ulm has been operational for a year, what is Daimler learning? After a little over a year 15,000 of the city's 80,000 driving age residents are members of Car2Go, according to Nicholas Cole, Car2Go North America, president. The Daimler press release has other interesting numbers from Ulm:

The 200 smarts of the first pilot are rented 500 to 1,000 times per day and they are used by 15,000 customers which equals more than 15 percent of the citizens who possess a driver’s license in Ulm. 90 percent of the participants take advantage of the unique offer to use car2go spontaneously without booking in advance and for one-way trips.

The goal of the Austin pilot project is to gather experience we can use to ensure the public launch of car2go in North America in 2010 is successful," says Nicholas Cole, CEO of car2go North America LLC. "In the second phase we will increase the number of cars in Austin and open the service to the public. We are also talking to a large number of cities in North America and Europe about additional rollouts of car2go."


PS: Although there isn't an iPhone app for the Car2Go in Austin, yet (it's on the way, I'm told), die hard US iPhone enthusiasts will want to keep close tabs on the Ulm Car2Go fleet by downloading the app Go2Car (free). It shows the current location of the vehicle, whether it's in use or not and the fuel level.