Two-seater Smart cars turn heads, but are clunky to drive

by: COURTESY OF CAR2GO - With car2go, members can drive any car in the fleet at any time, then park it anywhere in the service area and walk away.I feel like a car thief.

It just doesn’t seem right to walk up to a car that doesn’t belong to me, hop in and drive away. But that’s how car2go works — members can drive any car, on the spot, then park it anywhere in the Portland zone and walk away.

It isn’t much of a joy ride. The entire car2go fleet consists of Smart cars, which are about half the size of a typical sedan. They’re so small that people turn their heads and smile as you pass by, as if you were walking a puppy. They’re clunky to drive, and they seat just two people, with room for a few bags of groceries in the back.

Car2go entered the Portland market at the end of March, with 250 cars. The company has since added 25 electric cars to the fleet. It joins a growing number of car-sharing services in Portland, which operate on a variety of models.

The industry was born in Portland, when CarSharing Portland was hatched in 1997. That operation, since absorbed by Zipcar, combines short-term car rentals and membership fees. More recently, Getaround and RelayRides entered the Portland market with “peer to peer” services that enable private car owners to rent out their vehicles to other members. Car sharing is taking off nationally, especially on college campuses. Hertz, U-Haul, and Enterprise Rent-A-Car are all rolling out new short-term rental models.

Game changer?

What’s unique about car2go is that there are no established pick-up and drop-off sites. The cars are free-floating throughout the service area.

“It’s more flexible,” says Dave Brook, a local car-sharing consultant who founded CarSharing Portland. “You can use it in a more spontaneous way.”

He credits Daimler AG, the automotive company that owns car2go, for being innovators in the field. Not coincidentally, the German company also makes Smart cars (and Mercedes

vehicles and Freightliner trucks).

“They did something that was almost completely original, and they thought it through beautifully,” Brook says. “They did their homework.”

The free-floating idea is new for cars, he adds, but not for bicycles. Bike-sharing systems that allow their users to pick up and drop off bikes spontaneously exist in many cities all over the world, and a bike-sharing system is in the planning stage in Portland.

Unlike bikes, cars have onboard computers. Car2go’s Smart cars are customized to be used for car sharing, and they work best for people who are at least moderately tech-savvy. The system for finding and reserving cars is designed for users of smart phones, although you can get along with just a cell phone and a computer. You also need the mindset of a smart phone user — faith in the system, comfort with on-the-fly transactions and a willingness to accept the occasional glitch.

The only problems I had were with my own ability to figure out the interface. I had trouble navigating the online car finder, and I got lost in the reservation system a few times. But in my experiments in Southeast Portland and the Pearl District, I never had to walk more than five or six blocks to the nearest car.

For that to be possible, the city has to be more or less saturated with cars.

“You have to have critical mass,” Brook says, and Daimler has the resources to make it happen.

In fact, they’re jumping in with all four wheels. 

Revving up

“This is really, really fast growth,” says Katie Stafford, car2go communications manager for North America. The company, now headquartered in Austin, Texas, launched in Ulm, Germany, just three years ago. In July of last year, car2go operated in four cities worldwide. Now it’s in 14, with more than 130,000 members worldwide. Portland accounts for about 6,000 of those members.

So far, the growth in Portland has been steady, but Stafford predicts the growth curve is about to change.

“I think the momentum is really picking up now because people see other people driving it, or they have friends who have the service,” she says.

And the more people use it, the better it works.

“As more and more people start using the service,” Stafford explains, “the cars start moving to where people actually use them. You see this really organic shift.”

Meanwhile, there’s a staff behind the scenes, monitoring the cars’ fuel and charge levels, and looking for possible maintenance issues. Part of the check-in process for drivers is a touch screen where they rate the car’s cleanliness inside and out. Cards stashed in the dashboard allow drivers to fuel up or plug into a charging station for free. With the electric cars, rather than wait for the car to charge, the driver can simply hop into another vehicle nearby.

There’s a one-time fee of $35 to join car2go. After that, it’s 35 cents a minute to drive the cars. Parking in metered zones is free, and when you park, you can choose to end your trip or to keep the car in “stop-over” mode, which will prevent anyone else from driving away in it.

I ended one of my trips in front of my house, and I admit that I was hoping the car would stay there until the next time I wanted to take a drive. But in less than two hours I looked out to see someone get into it and drive away.

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