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Car-sharing firm hopes Portland is key to success

New state law helps Getaround match owners with drivers
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Jessica Roberts walks to her neighbor's car, which she rents by the hour under Getaround Inc.'s peer-peer car sharing program, now in its testing phase in Portland. 

Liz Hopkins' 1995 Pontiac Grand Prix finally died a month ago, and she doesn't plan to replace it.

Instead, when the 28-year-old bicycle commuter needs a car outside of work hours, she reaches for her smart phone to find a nearby resident willing to rent out their car for $6 or $6.50 an hour. Hopkins is one of the first Portlanders trying out Getaround Inc., which links people in need of occasional cars with those who want to make a few bucks from cars otherwise sitting idle in the driveway.

'I think it'll probably change the way people look at buying cars, or look at how they use cars,' Hopkins says.

The San Francisco-based 'peer-to-peer car-sharing service' is still being tested in Portland. But Getaround could ramp up quickly after Jan. 1, when a new Oregon law takes effect that was designed to accommodate such services.

Getaround started operating its car-and-driver matchmaking service in the Bay area last year and expanded into San Diego. It's trying to refine its service before adding new sites, but Portland is at the 'very top' of the list, says John Atcheson, company vice president. Though many people have signed up for the service in Portland, Atcheson says it's still in the 'beta testing' phase, and participation is limited.

'We want to get to the point where we feel the service is working the way we want it to work for people,' he says. 'I think we've got most of that in place right now.'

Portland is a logical market, because this is where the car-sharing movement in North America got its start.

Industry birthed here

In 1998, Portlander Dave Brook started Car Sharing Portland, which enabled people who didn't own cars to easily rent one parked in their neighborhood and pay by the hour. Brook sold his company to Seattle-based Flexcar in 2002, and that company was absorbed into Zipcar in 2007.

Zipcar, based in Cambridge, Mass., has become the dominant company in the field, with operations in Portland and many other cities, including other countries. It recently became a publicly traded company.

Some say peer-to-peer car-sharing is a game-changer in the industry. Zipcar buys new cars and parks them near where customers live, work and study for easy access. They have proven popular near college campuses and among employers.

Getaround doesn't need to buy a fleet of cars, and can offer cars in areas that aren't financially feasible for Zipcar. There will be Getaround cars in Beaverton and Lake Oswego, Atcheson says. 'Zipcar would never place a car there.'

Getaround also is cheaper.

'If you're willing to drive an older vehicle, you can drive it for a couple bucks an hour less than Zipcar,' says Brook, who continues to work as a consultant in the car-sharing industry, and authors a blog on the subject.

The average passenger car is used only one to two hours a day, and sits idle 92 percent of the time, Atcheson says.

Some cars are offered by owners for as low as $3 an hour, he says. The average income for people providing cars in the Bay area and San Diego is about $225 a month, he says.

California cleared the way for peer-to-peer carsharing a couple years back by passing a law that alleviates concerns about car owners' insurance liabilities. Environmental advocates soon took up the issue in Salem, and convinced the Oregon Legislature to pass House Bill 3149, modeled after the California law, earlier this year. The bill sailed through both chambers.

Berkshire Hathaway provides insurance for those using Getaround cars, and the law stipulates that people's insurance companies can't penalize them for being in the program, or charge them commercial rates.

Variety of wheels available

Prices are set by the people offering their cars, and they get to keep the majority of the money. A Cadillac SRX is listed for $10 an hour in San Francisco. A Scion xB is listed at $7.50 an hour, while a Tesla Roadster is offered for $50 an hour.

Getaround provides the matchmaking service, including a user-friendly app for iPhones, car insurance and 24-7 road service. Customers cover the gas and the fee.

Getaround performs several security checks on people before allowing them to use the service. People with past drunk-driving violations don't qualify, Atcheson says.

Jessica Roberts had been borrowing a hybrid Honda Civic from her neighbor, Noelle Studer-Spevak. They both live in Peninsula Park Commons, a co-housing project in North Portland.

But after using the car multiple times, it felt awkward, like Roberts was mooching, and there was a nagging concern about insurance liability. 'If I'm involved in a crash,' Roberts says, 'her insurance is likely to go up.'

Both signed up for the Getaround pilot, and say it's a more comfortable way to share the car. 'Through Getaround, you never have a feeling that you're putting someone out by borrowing a car,' Studer-Spevak says.

Roberts has used Zipcar and its predecessor companies in the past. Her former neighborhood, near Southeast 28th Avenue and Belmont Street, had three Zipcars within two blocks. But now the closest Zipcar is a half-mile away. She's been using Getaround about once a week, more than she ever used Zipcar.

Peer-to-peer carsharing makes a lot of sense in the current economic climate, Studer-Spevak says. 'When the economy's down, that's when people get creative.'

It also keeps more money in the local economy, Brook says.

There also are environmental advantages to car sharing. Studies show people who own cars are less likely to use alternative forms of transportation. For every car put on the road by a car-sharing company like Zipcar, four or five people sell their cars, and another five or so decide not to buy a car, Brook says.

It may be too soon to know if peer-to-peer car sharing will prove a viable business model. But Getaround and RelayRides, which operate on a similar model, have both raised significant startup money from prominent venture capitalists and so-called angel investors.

Though they could provide stiff competition to Zipcar, Brook figures Zipcar could easily enter the field if that's the direction the industry takes.

Zipcar's local general manager referred queries to company headquarters. In response, Zipcar issued a statement attributed to Scott Griffith, its chief executive officer and chairman.

'Portland is in many ways an ideal city to experiment with new transportation models,' according to the statement. 'We believe the arrival of peer-to-peer car sharing will generate added awareness of the car sharing model as a sustainable alternative to personal car ownership, and we support and encourage it.'