Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Big Week for P2P Carsharing

During the past few weeks, we've seen a couple of big developments in peer to peer carsharing:

  • Zipcar announced significant investment in P2P startup Wheelz 
  • Getaround launches 2 new cities — Portland, Oregon and Austin, Texas — and wins another award
  • RelayRides roared back to life announcing a national expansion strategy and new operating policies

Zipcar's investment in Wheelz answers the question many have been asking about what Zipcar's response to P2P was going to be.  Wheelz business model is focused on college and university campuses s it fits with Zipcar existing strategy. At the present Wheelz is operating on only one campus (Stanford), so Zipcar has certainly gotten in on the ground floor of P2P.  Exactly how (and indeed IF)  Zipcar intended to integrate Wheelz into their existing operation and marketing is the next big question.  At this stage I would expect them to let the P2P market develop for a while and concentrate on behind the scenes integration.

Meanwhile Getaround seems to be maintaining its PR lead against other rivals (RelayRides, JustShareIt and Wheelz among others) being bestowed the title "market leader" by consulting firm Frost and Sullivan.  They also announced that Getaround is the recipient of the 2011 Frost & Sullivan Enabling Technology Award, presented to a company that has "developed a pioneering technology that not only enhances current products but also enables the development of newer products and applications".  The press release notes Getaround's new member screening process, "carkit" technology and smartphone app. Just about every carsharing company has some version of all 3 of these.   Getaround, like Zipcar, has done a good job of staking out their claim to technology prowess.  (My 2¢: depending on how it develops, RelayRides partnership with GM/Onstar may ultimately prove to be a much more significant development.)

RelayRides announcement of a national strategy was their attempt to get back in the spotlight.  Another part of the announcement was that they were instituting personal key exchange as an alternative to installing in-vehicle technology (similar to Getaround).  Key swap enables customers to sign up and immediately start renting out their vehicles without the cost or delay of getting technology installed (even the Onstar system is not plug and play).  And it appears that some vehicle owners appreciate meeting the people who are renting their car (and it may even encourage a little better driving behavior on the part of the renters, as well).  As I've said before I've got no problem with "key swap" per se, only that I'd call it car rental, not carsharing, since I don't think key swap offers the customer a level of convenience (unattended access to the vehicle) that constitutes "real"carsharing (i.e. so that it can serve as an alternative to owning a vehicle for a significant number of people).

New York Times Skeptical of P2P

Meanwhile, New York Times writer Josie Garthwaite wrote a Wheels blog entry that raised doubts about RelayRides strategy of going national when only 2 states had personal vehicle carsharing laws in place.

While there certainly are benefits to having a personal vehicle carsharing law in place, I think the article overstates the risk of a P2P company operating in states that have not enacted laws defining personal vehicle carsharing.  The big risk is to RelayRides if they got embroiled in some legal morass about which insurance should apply in a particular claim situation (which is certainly a possibility). However, RelayRides insurance company has signed off on the national approach, so they're the one's really taking the risk, and if there's anyone who has figured out how to profit from risk, it's insurance companies!

In states without P2P laws, it seems to me the biggest uncertainty faced by the P2P company is a possible slower growth rate.  This might occur if vehicle owners worry that their personal auto insurance might be cancelled or what might happen in the event of an accident during a P2P trip.  Depending on how the P2P company addresses this concern, it's posible fewer people may chose not to enroll their vehicles in the service.  RelayRides used to post a video with a long testimonial by a customer whose vehicle was in a major accident during a P2P trip (not sure if it's still on their website or not?)

It's worth noting that no personal auto insurance company that I'm aware of has publicly stated their opposition to the concept of P2P carsharing.  I would like t to follow up with direct interviews with RelayRides members in Massachussetts, which does not have a P2P law, to determine if the risks and uncertainty are as great as are suggested in the article.

What will next week bring?