Zipcar, Google and why the carsharing wars are just beginning

Author: Lauren Hepler

In urban areas like Paris, San Francisco and Boston, there is no shortage of carsharing providers with creatively-capitalized names, from Zipcar and Car2Go to Getaround or City CarShare.

Now, however, the carsharing industry is at a turning point where evolving business models — round trip or one way? free-floating vehicles or cars docked at specific stations? — are poised to collide with parallel breakthroughs in ridesharing, electric vehicles and self-driving cars.

Though big questions remain about demand patterns, who will drive these futuristic cars and what happens to the data collected by service providers, the opening to increase efficiency and ease congestion in a cost-effective way is increasingly compelling for a range of providers.

“This allows flexibility for the operator to serve more people with a single car,” Susan Shaheen, director of Innovative Mobility Research at the University of California, Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center, told GreenBiz.

That math is already eliciting investment from incumbent automakers and rental car companies wary of losing market share. Broader transportation-as-a-service providers, like Uber, and large technology companies, primarily Google and Apple, are also experimenting in related areas.

But who will end up eating whom in the space, and how long might it be until all of these technologies actually come together (if ever) in one comprehensive mobility offering?

These early competitive dynamics have already resulted in automakers rushing to either acquire or partner with carsharing upstarts. Uber, meanwhile, is acquiring its own mapping talent and speculating about autonomous vehicles as Google hones its self-driving cars and tests out new ridesharing apps.

And we’re not talking about just a handful of potential carsharing customers at stake. More than 1.5 million people are already using these services in the Americas, according to new research from UC Berkeley:

Carsharing Americas

Still, a slight decline in customers from 2014 to early 2015 does underscore just how in flux the industry is.

“For the first time, you see a decline. I’ve already gotten a couple of emails like, ‘What does this mean?'” Shaheen said. “It means that a few operators have closed and a few have opened.”

While Shaheen’s data doesn’t include peer-to-peer providers, like Getaround, which declined to divulge their internal numbers, the carsharing space is transitioning from a mishmash of nonprofits, co-ops and a few established businesses to an industry dominated by for-profit players.

With auto industry incumbents now jockeying for position in a segment once relegated to the fringes of the transportation world, the real question is where to from here?

“Does it signal that we’re entering more into a mainstream phase, or a scaling phase or both?” Shaheen said. “It’s very important to look at this as a system, and how to create a more robust and resilient system.”

New competition

Over the course of 15 years in business, Zipcar has gained traction by offering reliable short-term car rentals to urban and suburbanites.

The key, which enticed rental car magnate Avis to pay around $500 million to acquire the company in 2013: giving members access to wheels without traditional rental car hassles, like standing in line at a counter or paying for days at a time.

Now, the window for car rentals is getting even smaller, thanks to a boom in immediate gratification on-demand services encouraged by newer competitors like Uber.

Since late last year, Zipcar customers in Boston have also been able to rent cars for one-way trips. They pay in 30-minute intervals and drop the car off at designated stations, where it’s guaranteed that a parking spot will be available.

“Largely that was driven by member demand,” Justin Holmes, Zipcar’s director of public policy and communications, told GreenBiz. “They wanted the flexibility to take a vehicle and leave it in another part of town.”
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