Car2Go vehicles lined up in Washington, D.C., as the company prepared to launch service there last year. The car sharing service is also in Europe and other American cities, including Seattle; Austin, Texas; Miami; and Portland, Ore
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
He picks one up of the cars first thing in the morning in his neighborhood and drives to the local coffeehouse. He works for a couple of hours and when he's ready to visit a client, he grabs another car, which he finds on an app on his smartphone. He reserves a tiny two-passenger Smart car across the street.
He swipes his membership card in front of a reader on the windshield to get in the car. "Now it's confirming my account, and you wait until the car is unlocked and now we can get in and start driving," Stewart says.
The idea is simple. Customers like Stewart take a car when they want it, drive it anywhere within the company's designated area and then just leave it. They might drive three or four different cars in a day, but pay only for the time they actually use the cars: 38 cents a minute, or if the trip is a long one, $14 an hour.
For Stewart it adds up to $150 a month, a fraction of what a car payment — plus gas parking and insurance — would be.
"It's truly a flexible, on-demand service for our customers," says Nicholas Cole, who heads up North American operations for Car2Go. He says it's not just 20- and 30-somethings or college students who are using it — so are retirees who've moved into the city and given up an automobile.
"Seattle is a great example. We launched Seattle right before Christmas, and here we are in April with over 18,000 people signed up," Cole says.
Nationwide, Car2Go claims about 90,000 members. Across the country about 10 times that number are using established car sharing services, according to Susan Shaheen, an expert in sustainable transportation at the University of California, Berkeley.
"What a lot of people are starting to see is the emergence of a lot of different companies and a lot of competition," Shaheen says.
She says Zipcar was the first company to gain attention for renting out cars on a short-term basis. More recently, a company called DriveNow, like Car2Go, offers one-way options. (Zipcar requires that you return the vehicle to its reserved parking spot when you're done driving it.)
And, says Shaheen, "now we see things like peer-to-peer car sharing where you can actually put your own personal vehicle into a car sharing system." Shaheen counts 12 personal car sharing companies in North America as of last month.
There's no question that economics are driving the car sharing market, but environmental concerns and the adaptation of smartphone technology are factors, too. So are cultural changes, says Jeffrey Tumlin of the transportation planning firm Nelson Nygaard.
"People of my generation believed that our private automobile said a lot about who we are, that [it] defined our power and our status. The younger generations don't seem to be buying into that anymore, and they are seeing automobiles as simply a tool," Tumlin says.
It's hardly surprising then that automakers see car sharing as a potential new market. Daimler owns Car2Go. BMW's offering is DriveNow. Volkswagen and Ford are exploring this market, too.