In the unending quest for new markets, automakers are now setting their sights on the very places that car use has made inhospitable – crowded cities. While the approaches take various forms of sharing or renting vehicles, they all have in common the promise of easing urban mobility and eliminating some of the onerous aspects of owning or renting a car in urban areas. In order to make this latest incursion palatable — or at least to deflect some of the obvious criticism that more cars aren’t the answer to making cities more attractive — “green” promises of emission reduction are made, along with more dubious assertions that this can actually reduce congestion. Still, the idea is attractive enough to explore further.
Just announced in Austin, Texas, this morning is a partnership between the city government and Daimler that will see a demonstration fleet of 200 Smart fortwo cars in service this fall. This “car2go” program emulates as similar demonstration project that started last fall in the much smaller German City of Ulm. Coincident with the Austin announcement, the Ulm program is being expanded today so that the public can participate and not just a select group of Daimler employees. At its start the Austin program, too, is only available to city employees.
The car2go concept is based on a fleet of Smart fortwo vehicles, which are available for rent to registered members at any time. Daimler claims that this makes city driving “as easy as using a mobile phone.”
Unlike some car-sharing programs, car2go promises you can get in a car and drive at any time of day without reserving in advance. The vehicle can then be used for as long as required and returned to any available parking location within a defined area of operation. Critics of similar car sharing programs, such as Massachusetts based Zipcar which operates in a dozen university cities, say that once a program becomes popular, availability becomes restricted and convenience turns to hassles. Major rental companies including Hertz and U-haul are also looking at the idea. Daimler is taking this slowly with a controlled test group of city employees. It will then be extended to the public, if it’s successful.
“Our project in Austin is the next logical step,” said Thomas Weber, who is responsible for Group Research and for Development of Mercedes-Benz Cars. The car-sharing market in the U.S. is enjoying the highest growth rate in the world, according to Daimler. (more…)