Saturday, September 11, 2010

The future of car ownership?

l'auto del futura dal 1950
Informal car sharing must have existed from the earliest days of personal motorised transport.

A few months back I signed up to GoGet, one of the two major Australian car share schemes (the other is Flexicar). I chose GoGet because they have more cars near our Sydney apartment.

With GoGet, users pay a regular monthly fee and a usage fee, with variants based on usage patterns.  Because I’d signed up out of curiosity, I chose the zero monthly fee option, which attracts the highest usage rates.

In fact I’ve never used the service in Sydney. Gina has a perfectly serviceable little Peugeot diesel, but we’d probably average no more than 10 or 15 km per week.
Uploaded - 20\07\2008-2

Recently I used the GoGet service when we spent a weekend in Melbourne. I flew down on Thursday evening, checked into our hotel, and then picked up the share car from a car park about 5 minutes’ walk away.

I’d booked online, choosing a a Mini Cooper, and the whole process was very simple: Book the car, place my membership card near the windscreen to unlock, and drive away. When we were finished, I returned the car to its dedicated spot, and walked away.

The next day I also booked a car. The Mini Cooper wasn’t available, so I got a rather boring (sorry, Toyota) Yaris.

Proponents of car-sharing schemes make much of the fact that the average car is largely unused – parked, in other words. I think this argument is somewhat spurious, since it could apply to pretty much any purchased objects. Our apartment, for example, is unused for at least 30% of the time. However, cars are somewhat amenable to more efficient usage, and car-share schemes are a step in that direction.

Car-sharing dovetails nicely with a trend away from minimum parking and towards maximum parking. Traditionally, local government regulations have specified that new developments – commercial or residential – must meet certain minima to ensure there is sufficient parking of residents or customers. Recently, in several countries (even in parts of the USA), local governments have specified maxima instead, effectively restricting the number of car spaces available.

Car-sharing schemes also coincide with enabling technologies – GPS, RFID and Web 2.0 self-service models.

The economics of car-sharing are very attractive from a consumer perspective. For a relatively small fee (compared with cost of ownership), urban dwellers can have convenient access to a car when needed.

There are still improvements to make. For example, the ability to drop a car at a different destination would be useful, but this is at least partly dependent on having a sufficient volume of share cars in operation.

And I’d like a little more choice - a manual transmission rather than an auto, for example, and something a little gutsier than a Toyota Yaris.

It would also be convenient if a standardised approach existed, so that customers could readily get a car when outside their home area or country. This is analogous to the way in which we now expect to be able to use our mobile phones when we travel with a minimum of dislocation.

My statement from GoGet in the month I used their service suggested that I had saved almost AUD $700 compared with the cost or owning a car. "If you still own a car, and didn't use it at all this month", said the statement, "it would have cost you $639.93. Why not get rid of it?"

Why not, indeed.

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