News & Politics

A New Car-Sharing Biz Launching This Weekend Promises No Parking Tickets–Ever

The CEO of Austin-based car2go breaks down the details of the “on demand” system.

Photograph by Carol Ross Joynt.

Though private car ownership is not threatened with obsolescence in Washington, transportation alternatives to car ownership are finding a home here. Just think Zipcar, Uber, and Capital Bikeshare. These young businesses are about to get some fresh competition. The Austin-based car2go car-sharing enterprise will launch in Northwest DC this weekend with morning to afternoon events: Saturday at Busboys and Poets at Fifth and K streets, and Sunday at Busboys and Poets at 14th and V streets. Members who join this weekend will be exempt from the $35 start-up fee and will earn 30 free minutes of drive time. The same courtesy will be extended to new members who join online, using the promo code “CAPITAL.”

Car2go North America is a subsidiary of the Daimler North America Corporation, which manufactures Mercedez-Benz vehicles as well as Smart Cars, which make up the car2go fleet. Washington will be the first East Coast launch for the car-sharing company.

We checked in with Nicholas Cole, the president and CEO of car2go.

Tell me something about yourself.

I’ve been with car2go since 2009, when we launched our pilot program in Austin, and I’ve been with Daimler in the US going on 15 years.

What got you out of the conventional car business and into the next wave?

I was with the commercial side of the business, and when Daimler decided to enter the car-sharing business, this opportunity came up.

Where did car sharing begin for Daimler?

In Ulm, Germany. That was our first location, and where we first launched what we call point-to-point car sharing. In 2009 we launched in Austin.

Why Austin?

A couple of things played into it. Austin is a growing city. It’s also a technology-based place with many early adopters of technology. The city is looking for opportunities to reduce congestion, and offered a lot of cooperation. It just made sense as a pilot in the US for car2go.

How has it done there?

We currently have 300 cars in Austin, plus two electric cars we introduced to our pool. We see about 7,000 rentals per week. We have nearly 21,000 members in Austin alone. We’ve seen the same thing in Vancouver and San Diego. They’ve been a great success.

Globally, where do you do the best?

In Europe people are more aware of car-sharing, but in the US awareness is increasing.

Would you say it is a European trend that is finding a home in America?

Yes. We have seen it pop up in the US and Canada over the past several years.

What are you bringing to Washington?

We’ll start with 200 two-passenger Smart cars.

Are they electric?

No. These cars have combustion engines.

How will car2go be different from Zipcar?

Our model is different from Zip and other competitors because they are station-based, hub-based–car2go is a free-floating system. You can pick up a car in Dupont Circle and leave it in Georgetown. You don’t have to book in advance. You are not tied to a time period. You make that decision. It’s truly open-ended. We refer to it as “on demand.”

It sounds a bit like our Capital Bikeshare program.

It is very similar to that.

Who do you see as your Washington customer, especially since this is a city where so many people own cars?

When we launched in Austin we were curious about what the customer base would be. We thought it would be students. The interesting thing we’re finding­–in Austin and San Diego and Vancouver, and, we expect, also in DC–is that the demographic is across the board: students, young professionals, folks who are retired but may choose not to have two cars any longer.

You mention students. Will you have the same strict age requirements as the conventional car rental companies, who ask that renters be 25?

One of the things we’re able to do is [serve customers] 18 years of age and older with a proven driving record. You have to have a history that’s clear. That’s one of the things we have in car sharing. We really opened it up.

Where will the cars be, and how will people find them?

They will be in metered parking spaces, street spaces, residential areas, shopping districts, business areas, where people live. They truly float through the system. We do have several apps out there that show you what cars are available around you, and will assess the car on the basis of cleanliness and the amount of fuel that’s in it.

Do they run on regular gas?

Premium gas, but each car has a fuel card in it. Gas is in included in the price. And with the fuel card you get 20 minutes of time credit for refueling.

What else is included?

Insurance and parking.

How can you include parking and protect drivers from tickets?

If you park at a city meter or space you are exempt. It was kind of groundbreaking when we established that with Austin. It’s great that Washington has allowed us to do the same. All the cars are identical so [parking enforcement] will know it’s a car2go. The agreement we have with the city allows our members to pick up and drop off any car2go vehicle anywhere within the car2go home area in the District, in any legal nonrestricted parking, including metered and not metered.

What will be your measure of success this weekend?

We’ve had some pre-registration already. The response has been overwhelming. I think we’re on the right track. It’s logical to be here in Washington. We’re going to fit in.

Will car-sharing put your mother company, Daimler, out of business?

It’s not a secret that cities like DC are difficult for people to own and operate a vehicle. How much more congestion can cities take? This is a way to alleviate that. People will have to use more public transportation in the future, as well as programs like car sharing and bike sharing. But I don’t think it will replace vehicle ownership.

Do you envision having any other cars but Smart Cars in your fleet?

Currently, no. Statistically we know the average car has 1.5 passengers in it for the daily commute. We can fit in 1.5 quite comfortably. For now, we’ll stay with Smart Cars.