Car sharing has been with us ever since kindly drivers first responded to the homespun philosophy of hopeful hitch-hikers who scribbled – and often misspelled – the names of their destinations on handmade signs.
Today car sharing is very different. It is no longer about the haves helping out the have-nots, but entire communities – from vehicle manufacturers to local councils – coming together to organise and share efficient fleets of cars. It’s also big business. Global revenue from car-sharing services is expected to total $34.6 billion (£24 billion) over the 10 years to 2024, according to Navigant Research.
It’s easy to see why its popularity is soaring. Sharing cars means sharing the significant costs of owning them – and that includes the purchase price, tax, insurance, testing, parking and maintenance. Saving on overheads, of course, means you can afford to splash out on moments of motoring luxury. How about taking a spin to the shops in a prestige car? A drop-top with premium Pirelli tyres?
The traditional outstretched arm and raised thumb has been replaced by smartphones, an app and GPS tracking
Happily fitting in with the ecofriendly zeitgeist, sharing is also caring – because fewer cars on the roads means less traffic and reduced pollution. Rapid advances in digital technology have helped, too, with the traditional outstretched arm and raised thumb replaced by smartphones, an app and GPS tracking. Although car-share systems vary, they can all be seen as a more convenient form of car rental. Vehicles can be booked and picked up from parking zones, then users pay for usage with billing based on distance travelled and time taken.
Car sharing is particularly successful in cities. Take Sydney, Australia, where its growth has outstripped council expectations, with more than 25,000 individuals – 15 per cent of licensed drivers – now part of a car-share scheme. Every shared car, according to the council, leads to a reduction of 10 vehicles in the privately owned car pool. So far, around 10,000 cars have been removed from the roads.
It gets better. Sharers also report travelling less by car than before – annually around 2,000km per person – as they switch to public transport, walking and the bicycle. In operation for a decade, the Sydney car-share network cuts vehicle kilometres by up to 37 million each year, which in turn is reducing congestion, pollution and road accidents while making parking easier.
The public landscape of cities is already starting to reflect the new mobility. Even the architecture. Buildings with less or no car parking spaces, for example, are cheaper to build. One Sydney architect calculated that car park-free flats were AU$30,000 (£15,200) cheaper to construct while studies reveal that the money home buyers save gets spent in the local economy. Car sharing, it seems, leads to emptier roads but busier bars and restaurants.
One of the most important shifts in the car-sharing market over the past five years has been the advent of automotive company-led services
Carless in Seattle
Car makers are responding to the growth of car sharing and services such as Uber by creating their own fleets. Sales direct to the end consumer may be in danger of falling, but this drop can be offset by retaining ownership of the cars and then charging customers to use them via a subscription or one-off journey fee.
“One of the most important shifts in the car-sharing market over the past five years has been the advent of automotive company-led services,” says Lisa Jerram, principal research analyst with Navigant Research. “This has helped spur an increase in one-way car-sharing services.”
In April, BMW launched its ReachNow programme in Seattle, US. It's a service that allows people to use one of 370 pool cars – a choice of BMW 328xi Series, two-door and four-door MINI Coopers and the all-electric BMW i3. An impressive 13,000 people signed up in a month. “We’ve had an overwhelmingly positive response,” said Dana Goldin, ReachNow’s head of marketing.
Certainly the reviewer on the Geekwire website was impressed. “There are many ways to describe my experience testing out BMW’s new car-sharing service in Seattle this weekend,” wrote Taylor Soper. “Fun. Exciting. Convenient. More simply, it was just really cool.”
A hitch-hiker’s dream
Car manufacturers realise car sharing will be a vital market. Jaguar Land Rover is launching a car-sharing service that will initially be offered only to the marques’ own customers across the world. But eventually it will be rolled out more widely. “It’s a race,” said Adrian Hallmark, strategy director of JLR.
A very competitive one. General Motors has taken a stake in Lyft – the US cab-hailing app – and bought driverless technology group Cruise for more than $1 billion. Daimler, which owns Mercedes-Benz, has also launched a car-sharing scheme in the US. Peugeot Citroën has announced it is looking at “mobility services” to boost revenues.
The world of car-sharing really is changing fast. All those years ago a hitch-hiker would have been thankful if a rusty jalopy stopped to offer a lift. The car sharer of tomorrow will have the choice of a brand new Jaguar, BMW or Mercedes. It will be interesting to see which one they give the thumbs up.