Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Car Sharing

I've long been intrigued by the car sharing clubs that have sprung up in Germany and elsewhere around the EU. An article in the Wall St. Journal last week (subscription required) described how the clever use of wireless technology and the text-messaging feature of Europe's GSM cellphone standard has made these services more convenient and secure. Even though this approach, in which you rent cars in increments of hours instead of days, seems incompatible with the way most Americans view their cars, there are fledgling car-sharing organizations in some US cities (e.g., NY, Seattle and San Francisco.) Aside from its convenience, this system could also save a fair amount of gasoline.

That might sound counter-intuitive at first, if you assume car-sharing would mainly induce the car-less to car-share, instead of taking mass transit. But it should make it even more attractive for those who are fed up with the hassle and cost of owning cars in urban areas like Manhattan to give them up, on the assurance that they can micro-rent one any time for an errand or appointment. Even if these two customer categories canceled each other out, the scheme might still improve overall fuel economy, by reducing the number of SUVs on the road. After all, if you could get an SUV any time you really needed one for hauling capacity or traction, then you wouldn't need to drive one all the time.

Car sharing is also a good avenue through which to ramp up sales of fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles. Since hybrids typically achieve their best mileage in urban driving, they are ideal for lowering the costs of urban car-sharing. It also keeps the consumer risk associated with this kind of new technology to a minimum. Maintenance, battery life, and resale issues that might deter an individual buyer can be managed much more easily within a commercial fleet.

Improving the technology behind car-sharing, as described in the article, should do more than just make it more efficient and secure. It should make it more appealing, as well. I love the thought of being able to wave a smart card or cellphone at some random car on the street, hop in, and drive away. It wouldn't work for my suburban lifestyle, but if I lived in New York City, I'd sign up in a heartbeat.

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